Tag Archives: family tragedy

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.

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.

Call Back

I’m flying to Reno then driving to Susanville in a couple of weeks to meet with the detective on Joan’s case and see what information I can get from her file. I’ve debated about calling her husband to see if we can meet to talk while I’m there.

Thinking of calling Dan brings me back to that warm June morning 31 years ago when, without thinking, I’d chosen black pants and a black top from my closet. I shook my head as I hung them back up. What was I thinking? All black was hardly the festive outfit to wear for the birthday breakfast I was preparing for my neighbor Joanne that morning!

I clicked on the Mr. Coffee. The aroma of the rich brew filled the air as I neatly laid out the pastries on my prettiest tray. The phone rang as I was setting the table. I assumed it was Joanne. “Hey Birthday Girl!” I chirped.

“Uh, Peg, it’s me…Dan.”

If we could pick one moment in our lives where we could wind back and take a different road, that would be mine. Having recently shared with Joan that I’d had a dream that Dan had called to tell me she died, I thought the call was a joke. But even a seasoned prankster like Dan couldn’t fake such a somber tone. Hearing it, I tried to scramble back up that road. “I’m asleep,” I thought. “I’ll wake up and Joan will be fine.” But the coffee kept brewing.

“Peg…Joan’s dead.”

Now the road was warping and rolling and I was on the ground. I fell and pulled my legs and arms into the fetal position, hoping against hope that I had never been born. That would be preferable to the pain beginning to seep in all around.

That call to Dan is just going to have to wait.

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.

Why Now?

Joan at my wedding

Why, 30 years after Joan’s murder, have I decided that it’s time to step up and see if I can figure out who killed her?
To be honest, I’m not sure. Could be that the grueling emotional dive of writing my family’s story, Approaching Neverland, prepared me to plumb deeper into scarier waters. Or maybe sharing our story has tied all the sadness and joy, shame and exhilaration of being in our family into a more manageable package that can be tucked neatly under my arm as I descend into the quiet darkness.
It’s cooler down here. Come with me if you like. I’ll take your hand. Let me know if you see something that I don’t. It’s time now.