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The Headmaster's Wife
By Jane Haddam
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Orania Papazoglou
All rights reserved.
It had been years since Gregor Demarkian spent much time thinking about his older brother, Stefan, and then it had only been a glancing thought occasioned by the fact that he was back on Cavanaugh Street and Cavanaugh Street was not what he'd expected. Now, standing at the window of his apartment and looking down at the construction crews beginning to arrive for their day at Holy Trinity Church — or what was left of it — it occurred to him that this was very odd. There had been a time, when he was very small and Stefan had just gone into the army, that he had thought about him every hour of every day, with an intensity of fear and hope that had blocked out every other emotion. Looking back on it, he found he couldn't reason away the conviction that he had known, from the moment Stefan had put on his uniform and walked out the door, that he would never see his brother again. The whole idea of war had been a matter of confusion, and at that point he had never known anyone who had died except the very old people on the street who had never seemed alive to begin with. It wasn't an understanding of life and death that had convinced him, any more than it was an understanding of war that had made him feel, at the time and forever afterward, that he didn't approve of it. Stefan had seemed so tall standing at the door, holding his hatunder his arm while their mother draped herself over his chest and wept into the khaki buttons on his government-issue shirt. It was odd to think that he knew, now, that Stefan hadn't been tall at all. He'd barely been five ten, and Gregor himself was now well over six feet.
Maybe, Gregor thought, it would have been easier to remember accurately if Cavanaugh Street had been the same as it was then. Everything was too clean, and too well taken care of. The fire escapes had all been moved around to the back. The brownstones had been scrubbed free of dirt and pollution and age. The stoops had been transformed into entryways, complete with low, white stone pillars and polished slate inlays on the surfaces of the steps. He remembered playing on this street when he was nine or ten years oldlong after Stefan was dead-and hitting a ball into a clothesline stretched from a window on one side of the street to a window on the other. Mrs. Bagdinian had stuck her head out and cursed him in Armenian, and he and all the other boys had run away.
Down the hall at the back of the apartment, the bathroom door opened and closed. Bennis said, "Gregor?" but kept on moving, into the bedroom, where she already had her things laid out on the bed. The bedroom door did not close. That was something else that had changed. Gregor's late wife always closed the door when she dressed, even after they'd been married for twenty years, and Gregor was willing to bet that his own mother had done exactly the same. That apartment had been a cramped series of small boxes on the fourth floor of a tenement, where half the apartments had to share a bathroom in the hall. He had felt rich beyond measure because his own family's apartment had had a bathroom to itself, and he had not been kind to the children he had seen tramping back and forth to the little cubicle at the back of the floor. Then he had gone to school and for the first time met people who did not live in places like Cavanaugh Street, and from that day to this he had never felt rich again.
Bennis came into the living room. Gregor did not turn around. The construction crews were unpacking their equipment. Some people had stopped to watch them begin work. One of those people was Fr. Tibor Kasparian.
"Tibor's up and around already," he said. "It's incredible that we never hear him leave in the mornings. He's like a ghost."
"He's on the floor below us. Are you watching the construction? Can you see it from here?"
"Not really. I can see the trucks. They just came in. We must be late."
"It's eight. Granted, we've been going to breakfast at seven for a while now, but there's no real need for it if you're not on a case, and you've turned down four cases in the last three weeks. More, in the last eight months. Do you ever intend to get around to telling me what all that's about? Have you decided to stop working?"
"Would it bother you if I had? Would it be too much as if I'd turned into a gigolo?"
"Christ," Bennis said. "Sometimes you are truly and sincerely one of the most annoying men I've ever met. Nobody even uses words like 'gigolo' anymore."
"No, I suppose they don't."
"And we live in your apartment, not mine. And you won't let me share expenses. And the last I heard, your investments were doing just fine, which beats mine, since you're apparently clairvoyant and know exactly when to pull out of the stock market —"
"The trick with the stock market is to never get into it."
"Whatever. What brought this up, Gregor? 'Gigolo' is a nasty word, especially in this context, especially since it's not even close to true. Or maybe that's my background. It's the principal paranoia of every rich girl's parents that somebody will marry her for her money."
"I don't know what brought it up," Gregor said. "I was looking at the street and thinking about my brother. Did I ever tell you I had a brother?"
"Yes. Older. Died in the army."
"Right. He's buried where my mother is, in the same cemetery where my wife is buried. I haven't been there inages, and the last time I went I only went for Elizabeth. There ought to be something on the street to remember them by. I don't know what. I keep thinking of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, but that isn't what I mean at all, really. I don't know. Maybe we could carve something into the sidewalks. 'At this spot stood a five-story walk-up tenement where the apartments were all too small and where Sofia Valdanian Demarkian heard that one of her sons was dead and the other had been admitted to Harvard Business School.'"
"On the same day?"
"No, of course not. Nearly two decades apart. Doesn't it ever bother you? Or are all the places you grew up in still intact so that you can go back and see them exactly the way they were?"
"My childhood home has been inherited by a nonprofit foundation, and I wouldn't want to go back and see it in any case, especially if it were still intact, as you put it. Gregor, why aren't you working? I know I used to complain about how much time you spent on it, and I know I used to worry that you'd end up getting shot, but this isn't good for you. It really isn't. And it's not as if nothing interesting has come up. John Jackman —"
"Has he been talking to you behind my back?"
"It's hardly been behind your back. He's a friend of mine. He had that case in December of the woman who was poisoning her husbands, you remember; she'd already gotten away with three of them, and he was afraid she was going to get away with another —"
"No, she didn't, Gregor, but she'd have been in jail a lot sooner if you'd helped, and you know it. And he asked for your help. I've never known you to turn down John when he asked. I think he was insulted."
"Then I'll have to apologize to him."
"This is impossible," Bennis said.
He heard her fussing with something behind him, but he didn't turn around to look at her. He was still looking downon the construction trucks and the people on the street. They were people he knew, by and large, but for some reason they didn't look familiar, any more than the street did. He wanted to think it was just the time of day. Back before the church had been destroyed, he and Bennis had gone to breakfast every day at seven, instead of eight, and maybe the people on that schedule had been different than the people on this one — but he really knew it was not. They looked wrong, though, all of them. They looked very wrong.
Behind him Bennis had come around the back of the couch and sat down. He could hear her feet going up on the coffee table, even though he knew she wasn't wearing shoes. She never wore shoes in the house. In the summer she didn't even wear socks.
"Listen," she said, "I know you feel responsible for that mess out there. I know you do. But nobody else does. Tibor doesn't. Lida doesn't. Hannah and Sheila and Howard don't. Nobody does, really. And it doesn't make sense for you to think that. And you know it."
"It's not that simple."
"It is that simple, Gregor. He'd have done what he did even if you'd never have existed —"
"He wouldn't have done what he did to this church."
"He'd have done it to some other church. Or to police headquarters. She'd have done what she did, too. She was unbalanced as hell. You have to know that."
"Tibor could have died."
"He didn't die. Nobody died. A lot of structural damage was done to the church, and now it's being rebuilt, that's all. And that's not necessarily a bad thing."
"It was a landmark."
"It was a landmark badly in need of updating. It was drafty. It needed a new heating system. It needed new flooring in the sacristy —"
"Well, for God's sake, Bennis, we could have done all that without blowing the damned tiling up."
"Yes, I know we could have. My point is that the church was not a child, and it was not a pet, it was a building. And assad as it is to see a building destroyed when it's been a vital part of the neighborhood for decades —"
"More than a century."
"More than a century. It's still just a building, Gregor, and it's being put back up. It's not being replaced by condominiums. You're not going to find a Wal-Mart staring at you from across the street."
"I don't think Wal-Mart builds in cities."
"I don't care where they build. You're making a huge leap of the imagination to give yourself a reason to feel guilty here. You're in some kind of clinical depression. You barely eat. You're driving Lida and Hannah crazy, and the Melajians think it's all my fault. We don't even talk anymore."
"We're talking now."
"No, we're not," Bennis said. "I'm lecturing you. There's a difference. You need to go back to work. It's not about making money or being a gigolo. It's not about whether I want you around the apartment. It's about your sanity."
The knot of people at the construction site had grown larger. It bothered Gregor to think that he hadn't noticed the new people come in. "The thing is," he said, "none of it interests me anymore. A woman who was poisoning her husbands. Well, yes. Women do that. For the insurance money. Because their husbands cheat on them. You might make a case for self- interest in the theory of women as serial killers. Women serial killers rarely kill for sexual satisfaction, which men almost always do. But you know, Bennis, I've been doing this for thirty years now. Over and over again. What's the point of doing it some more?"
"It interests you," Bennis said, "or at least it does when you get into it. And you help to get people off the street who are a danger to the innocent people on it."
"And there will always be a couple of dozen more out there whom I don't get off the street. Nobody can get them all off the street. They're — part of us. That's what we don't ever accept, I think. We want them to be monsters and aliens, and they're just the kids next door and the women at the PTA meeting."
"So what? So we take the police off the streets and don't even bother to try?"
"I didn't say that," Gregor said. "I was just trying to explain why I'm not interested."
"Bullshit," Bennis said. "You are interested. I've seen you sitting up watching American Justice and City Confidential. It's not that you're not interested; it's that you don't want to get involved."
Gregor pressed his face against the glass. Father Tibor had been joined by Grace Feinmann. That was two people from the building who were out and about without his having noticed their leaving, and Grace lived above them, so it wasn't that. She was carrying a thick sheaf of papers and waving them around in front of Tibor's face. The papers were probably sheet music, and later today she would probably begin the practicing that would fill the house with harpsichord music until whenever it was her next concert started. Probably probably Gregor thought. Everything was probably, or probably not.
"I'm going to the Ararat," Bennis said. "I've got nothing against keeping you company under ordinary circumstances, but it ruins my day to spend breakfast with you in a funk. Get your coat and come with me."
"I'll still be in a funk."
"I'll have a lot of other people to take my mind off it."
Grace and Tibor had left the construction site and were on their way up the street. They would be going to the Ararat, too. Directly across from Gregor's apartment, Lida Arkmanian came out the front door of her town house and squinted in the direction of the construction. When Gregor got particularly maudlin, he wondered what would have happened to him if he had married Lida right after they'd both graduated from high school, which is what everybody but his mother had expected him to do. His mother had expected him to take advantage of that scholarship from the University of Pennsylvania, and Lida had married Frank Arkmanian and settled down on Cavanaugh Street.
"You know," he said, "maybe we ought to stop circling the question and just get married."
There was absolute silence from the couch behind him.
"This is good," he said. "I expected a lot of answers to that suggestion, Bennis, but I will admit I never anticipated silence."
"Is it a suggestion?" Bennis asked. "I couldn't tell. It sounded like an ... observation."
"Ah. Maybe you ought to try again if you ever decide to turn it into a suggestion."
"You're making this very hard for me, you know."
Bennis got up off the couch. "Maybe I'd just feel a little better if you'd actually look at me when you said things like that. I'm going to the Ararat, Gregor. Come if you want to."
There was more movement, more rustling, the sound of Bennis's feet slipping into clogs, the sound of clogs on the hardwood floor of the entry way, the sound of the apartment door opening and snicking quietly shut. Gregor stayed where he was until he saw Bennis come out the front door of their building and start up the street, a small, thin, irrepressibly elegant woman with a cloud of black hair that floated around her head like a storm. He tried to decide if he'd just proposed marriage to her or not. He really didn't know.
I don't want to get myself involved in anybody else's criminal conspiracies, he thought, but the sentence sounded pompous to him even as it echoed inside his head, and it wasn't what he had meant anyway. If he could figure out what he did mean, he might be able to do something about Bennis, and about a great many other things.
Gregor had been thinking about his brother, Stefan, because Stefan had had a fiancée when he went into the army, a Cavanaugh Street girl with Armenian parents who went to Holy Trinity Church every Sunday and worked part-time at a little bakery that had once existed two doors down from Ohanian's Middle Eastern Food. There was something that had changed for the worse about Cavanaugh Street. Gregor had loved that bakery when he was a child. He could take a quarter into that place and come out with a big piece of loukoumia, or those round honey pastries with the pistachio nuts whose name he could never remember anymore. Lida would know what they were called. She would probably even make him some. Once, about three weeks after they'd had the news that Stefan had died, Gregor had come across the girl he'd been engaged to sitting on the stoop in front of the bakery with her apron held up over her face, weeping silently and steadily and without the sobbing convulsions he had come to assume were natural to women in tears. The sight of her had fascinated him. She was crying for Stefan. He was sure of that. She was only crying, though, and not going to pieces, and for some reason that made her grief much deeper and all the more real. He had wanted to cry for Stefan himself, but he hadn't been able to. He had lain in bed night after night, staring into the dark in the direction of the ceiling, thinking about nothing. Stefan had been, and now he was not. He was nothing. There was nothing in the other bed in the room, and there would never be something again. Death had seemed to him then to be literally absence — not the absence of life, but absence in its essence, the definition of absence. He had really been very, very small, less than five years old, and he hadn't had the words he needed to describe what he felt. It was as if a great, gaping hole had opened up under his feet. It wasn't the pit of hell, the way the priest sometimes said. There was no fire down there. There was no devil. It was just a hole, going down, never stopping, a hole with nothing in it. That was what the girl seemed to understand, sitting there without sobbing, that nobody else around him did. He'd wanted to go up to her and sit beside her. He didn't think he could comfort her. He didn't think there was any comfort left in the world. He hoped that she could calm him. He was not afraid. You couldn't be afraid of nothing. He was only paralyzed, and for days it had seemed to him that there was no point in breathing.
Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wife by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 2005 Orania Papazoglou. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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