Category Archives: sister’s murder

I Sleep with Dogs

Joan’s relaxing in the guest bedroom. I glance out front at the muddy Honda station wagon that’s arrived with her this time from somewhere in the cosmos and smile. Joan would surely know her carbon footprint. I hear her stir and stand in the hallway outside the bedroom door, waiting.

“God, you scared me!” she says as she opens the door. Even paper dolls get spooked sometimes.

I laugh. “Ha – got you!”

I follow her to the kitchen, where she opens my cupboard and removes a box of loose green tea. She pulls a small tea bell with chain from her sweatshirt pocket, fills the bell, latches it, then drops it in a mug of hot water. She repeats the process and we two sit down at the table.

“Have you talked with Dan?” Joan asks, eyes averted as her hands wrap round her mug.

“I’m waiting to get the police records.” I respond.

“No need to wait. He’s waiting for you to call. I told him you would.” She reaches for some strands of hair to twirl, forgetting it’s all in a braid down her back. The hand returns to the mug. Our eyes meet. “You know, Dan and I had a pact that the first of us to die would try to contact the other person from wherever we were. I tried calling Dan for a long time — it’s hard to know how long when you’re out here but I’m gonna guess it was like 10 years of time there — and he never picked up. I finally gave up. You know, I had things to do…”

“You did? Like what?” I asked, intrigued.

“Like stuff I’ll tell you about later. Anyway, a few years ago as you were finishing up Approaching Neverland, I knew it was only a matter of time before you took the leap,” her hand caressed the back of her head as it searched for her braid. Finding it, she pulled off the rubber band from the end and ran her fingers through to unleash her hair so she could twirl the ends.

“Leap?”

“To try and figure out who killed me. Aren’t you gonna just ask me who did it?”

“Can you tell me?”

“No.”

“You’re such a brat!” I yelled as we both burst into laughter. You’re gonna make me figure this out even though you know, aren’t you?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why?”

“You need to understand the dark side.”

“And you’re going to lead me there?”

“Uh-huh.”

How is it that 30 years past your murder and 50 years after you took my hand as we skated to the corner I still feel your fingers wrapped around mine?

I walk her to her car. As she drives away, the sign on her back window comes into view: I sleep with dogs.

Tomatoes with Orzo

Now Joan is in my kitchen. It’s warmer today so I’ve dressed her in a sleeveless shell and sky blue yoga pants that bell at her calves. The paper tabs slide up and down her (very thin) frame as she moves to the hip hop music from the stereo while chopping tomatoes. As she bends to peer into the cupboard for a bowl, the tab loses its grip. She reaches back to fold it.

“Oh look — you still have the bowl I gave you for a wedding gift,” she grins as she pulls the manila bowl with red and green stripes from the shelf. “I thought this would be perfect for making cookies.” We share a smile. She exchanges the large bowl for a smaller one from the same shelf, deftly scoops the tomatoes into the bowl, then rinses the cutting board and sets it in the sink.

“We got word that the Susanville Police Dept is surrendering all of their records on your case to us,” I say.

She steps back to lean against the counter as one arm wraps around her waist and her hand covers her mouth. “I didn’t want you to have to do this,” she says so softly that I have to tip closer to hear her.

“I know — but you would have done it for me.”

She nods.

I add the simmered orzo to the bowl along with some olive oil, toasted pine nuts, lemon zest and chopped parsley before handing her the other spoon. Our eyes connect.

“Dig in.”

Paper Tabs

Now that I’ve taken Joan out of her photo, I need to decide what she should wear. Here we are circa 1958. My red white and blue sailor dress continues to be my favorite dress of all time. 

Joan, on the other hand, didn’t have a favorite dress. Every dress suited her just fine and seemed pleased to have the good fortune to be on her body.

Now I have the great pleasure of dressing her as I would a paper doll. What to have Joan wear? Well let’s see. I like to think that if she were still around, she’d be living in a cottage on a steep hillside near Innsbrook. Some snow is still on the ground but green grass and occasional wildflowers are beginning to emerge.

Let’s go for a look of Bavarian simplicity:

Relaxed turtleneck the color of wet sand fitted at the waist above your not too tight hip hugging pants; clogs with woven socks; hair looped with one motion in a bun atop your head. I’ll keep you there for now, paper tabs tucked carefully in place, and watch as you sweep the ashes from your hearth while the kindling sparks.

Fear

“Peggy, get out of there now!” Patrick yelled at me through the phone.

My heart raced. I’d never heard Patrick’s voice raised with anything but hilarity. But he wasn’t being funny. Laughs had been hard to come by since Joan’s murder the week before.

“Why?” I asked, gripping the phone as I wrapped my arm tightly around my waist.

“Sue and I just talked to a psychic. Peg — please just do it. You need to get out of your house now. Call me from somewhere else.”

“Okay.” Never one to question my brother Patrick’s wisdom, I fumbled to put the phone back on its receiver, grabbed my purse and ran down the stairs from my condo to the carport. I looked around — no one was there. I flung open my car door and drove to a phone booth a few miles away in front of a supermarket. People were walking to and from their cars. Had anyone followed me?

I quickly dialed Pat’s number. “Peg?” Pat asked as he picked up.

“It’s me. What in the world did the psychic say?”

“Honey — I’m sorry to scare you but I didn’t want to take any chances. We brought Joan’s necklace to this woman that had been recommended to Sue in Oakland. She described Joan without us telling her anything. She nailed everything — her house, her dogs… she even knew where Joan was killed and how. Honey I don’t want to scare you but she said it’s going to happen again. She described a wooden second story unit with a sliding glass door and deck. She mentioned a big tree…”

Holy shit — the oak tree in front of of my condo!

“…and Peg — she said the next victim would look just like Joan.”

Outta the Park

“Take my car,” Paul’s dad, Stan, said when Paul broke the news of Joan’s murder. “You’ll need a lot of room to take the family to the funeral.” Cars didn’t come much bigger than his Caddie. Lovingly nicknamed the Pimpmobile by Paul and his brothers, the sleek convertible sported smacking red interior.

“We may need it for as much as a week, Dad,” Paul replied.

“Take it.”

By the time we left San Leandro for Susanville the day after we learned of Joan’s death, our team had grown from the “now there are 6” of our immediate family to “now there are 12” including Paul; Sue’s current partner Dee; her ex partner and bona fide family member Anita; Glenn’s friend and sometimes partner Phoebe who had once walked around naked in the kitchen of the house she shared with Patrick and friends in Santa Cruz while Paul and I stared at the bowls of berries we’d just picked from the garden; Joan’s ex boyfriend Larry who was now Joseph and out of the closet; and Mom’s friend Frances, an incessant talker who had appointed herself our trip’s documentarian.

Mom and Dad drove in their white Grenada with Glenn, Sue, Dee and Anita; the rest of us swayed down the freeway in style on those luscious red seats. Aside from a funny comment here or a witty comeback there, we were a sad solemn group.

We arrived in Susanville that late afternoon to be greeted by Dan and his parents, who stood bleekly in front of the motel where they had arranged for us to stay. Our hugs, though heartfelt, were hollowed by the stark absence of Joan.

It was too early for dinner and our appointment with the mortuary wasn’t until the next morning. What to do? Some of Dan and Joan’s friends were gathering at a friend’s house. One of them asked if we’d like to join them. Devoid of the will to do anything but numbly follow, we all ended up in someone’s dirt backyard in lawn chairs watching a couple of guys hitting baseballs.

Patrick, who’d been sitting by himself smoking, turned to face me.
“You’re up, Peg.”

“What?” I asked, willfully pulling myself out of the scene I’d replayed dozens of times in the last 24 hours since Dan’s call: Joan and I were sitting in my living room sharing a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough laughing as my cat, who was cleaning himself, leaned too far backwards and fell off the couch. If only we could laugh again.

“It’s your turn at bat.” Pat said.

Shocked by the suggestion, I laughed. “Me?” I was lousy at hitting.
What was he thinking?

“Yeah — show them how to hit the ball.”

Never one to say no to Patrick, I shook my head, stood up and walked over to the guys playing ball. “Can I hit one?” I asked, smiling meekly.

The guy with the bat shrugged and handed me the bat.
“Pitch it easy,” he called to his friend.

I missed the first pitch, and the second. By the third, everyone’s eyes were on me. I was gripping the bat and cursing under my breath. “Goddamn it, Patrick.”

The pitch seemed to come in slow motion as I swung. Finally connecting, the ball flew over the far fence and into the neighbor’s yard. Everyone in my family stood and cheered.

I jumped up and down, hands high.
The rest of the folks seemed genuinely baffled by all the hoopla over one hit.
But our team really needed a win.

The Blue Bible

I’m opening up the hardcover journaling book that I bought a few days after I returned from Joan’s funeral. The slim keepsake — blue with gold Persian-style interwoven flowers and crests — is the bible of my rebirth through grief that began that June morning after Dan’s call. Typing paper with scribbled sentences and neatly written notes on yellow legal pad are folded and crammed between the cover and first page, remnants of burning thoughts and late night messages occurring too far from where the book happened to lie.

My desk is awash in tearful “Dear Joan” letters and I haven’t even opened the book to the first page. I thumb through the gold leaf pages, afraid to feel the raw emotion of those crossed out days and months where July became August and Saturday became Friday night. Who knew what day or time it was? Who cared? Joan was gone. No amount of crying or writing could bring her back. But still I tried.

Tucked carefully between the last two pages, leaves, brown, but still hinting at their original purple hue, is a pressed iris — Joan’s favorite flower. Touching its petals makes me feel closer to her than all of my writing combined.

Connecting the Detective

After 3 weeks of trying, I finally connected with the detective at the Susanville Police Dept. that was recently assigned to Joan’s case. He admitted he hadn’t yet reviewed her file, but said he would soon.

“I know it’s been 31 years but I’m at a point in my life where I’d like to do everything I can to help you solve my sister’s case,” I said. “I think I’m finally emotionally detached enough that I’m willing to provide whatever insights I can bring to bear on the evidence that you already have and work on my own to dig up more information.”

“Considering the gravity of the case, I’m not sure how much I’ll actually be able to share with you from the file,” he replied.

“I’m willing to work with whatever you have,” I said, hoping he noted my pragmatic tone: surely the last thing he would want would be to hold someone’s hand as they relived their sibling’s murder. But that was the furthest thing from my mind.

For decades, I’d stayed as far away as possible from any details of Joan’s case. Suddenly, I had to get into that file.