Read an Excerpt
It came in a plain brown wrapper.
Padded envelope, book rate, book-sized. I assumed it was an academic text I’d forgotten ordering.
It went on to the mail table, along with Monday’s bills and announcements of scholarly seminars in Hawaii and St. Croix. I returned to the library and tried to figure out what I was going to do in ten minutes when Tiffani and Chondra Wallace showed up for their second session.
A year ago their mother had been murdered by their father up on a ridge in the Angeles Crest Forest.
He told it as a crime of passion and maybe he was right, in the very worst sense. I’d learned from court documents that absence of passion had never been a problem for Ruthanne and Donald Dell Wallace. She’d never been a strong-willed woman, and despite the ugliness of their divorce, she had held on to “love feelings” for Donald Dell. So no one had been surprised when he cajoled her into taking a night ride with sweet words, the promise of a lobster dinner, and good marijuana.
Shortly after parking on a shaded crest overlooking the forest, the two of them got high, made love, talked, argued, fought, raged, and finally clawed at one another. Then Donald Dell took his buck knife to the woman who still bore his name, slashed and stabbed her thirty-three times, and kicked her corpse out of his pickup, leaving behind an Indian-silver clip stuffed with cash and his membership card in the Iron Priests motorcycle club.
A docket-clearing plea bargain landed him in Folsom Prison on a five to ten for second-degree murder. There he was free to hang out in the yard with his meth-cooking Aryan Brotherhood bunkmates, take an auto mechanics course he could have taught, accrue good behavior brownie points in the chapel, and bench press until his pectorals threatened to explode.
Four months into his sentence, he was ready to see his daughters.
The law said his paternal rights had to be considered.
An L.A. family court judge named Stephen Huff—one of the better ones—asked me to evaluate. We met in his chambers on a September morning and he told me the details while drinking ginger ale and stroking his bald head. The room had beautiful old oak paneling and cheap country furniture. Pictures of his own children were all over the place.
“Just when does he plan on seeing them, Steve?”
“Up at the prison, twice a month.”
“That’s a plane ride.”
“Friends will chip in for the fare.”
“What kind of friends?”
“Some idiocy called The Donald Dell Wallace Defense Fund.”
“Meaning it’s probably amphetamine money.”
His smile was weary and grudging. “Not the issue before us, Alex.”
“What’s next, Steve? Disability payments because he’s stressed out being a single parent?”
“So it smells. So what else is new? Talk to the poor kids a few times, write up a report saying visitation’s injurious to their psyches, and we’ll bury the issue.”
“For how long?”
He put down the ginger ale and watched the glass raise wet circles on his blotter. “I can kibosh it for at least a year.”
“If he puts in another claim, the kids can be reevaluated and we’ll kibosh it again. Time’s on their side, right? They’ll be getting older and hopefully tougher.”
“In a year they’ll be ten and eleven, Steve.”
He picked at his tie. “What can I tell you, Alex? I don’t want to see these kids screwed up, either. I’m asking you to evaluate because you’re tough-minded—for a shrink.”
“Meaning someone else might recommend visitation?”
“It’s possible. You should see some of the opinions your colleagues render. I had one the other day, said the fact that a mother was severely depressed was good for the kid—teach her the value of true emotions.”
“Okay,” I said. “But I want to do a real evaluation, not some rubber stamp. Something that may have some use for them in the future.”
“Therapy? Why not? Sure, do whatever you want. You are now shrink of record. Send your bill straight to me and I’ll see you get paid within fifteen working days.”
“Who’s paying, our leather-clad friends?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure they pay up.”
“Just as long as they don’t try to deliver the check in person.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Alex. Those types shy away from insight.”
The girls arrived right on time, just as they had last week, linked, like suitcases, to the arms of their grandmother.
“Well, here they are,” Evelyn Rodriguez announced. She remained in the entry and pushed them forward.
“Morning,” I said. “Hi, girls.”
Tiffani smiled uneasily. Her older sister looked away.
“Have an easy ride?”
Evelyn shrugged, twisted her lips and untwisted them. Maintaining her grip on the girls, she backed away. The girls allowed themselves to be tugged, but unwillingly, like nonviolent protesters. Feeling the burden, Evelyn let go. Crossing her arms over her chest, she coughed and looked away from me.
Rodriguez was her fourth husband. She was Anglo, stout, bottom-heavy, an old fifty-eight, with dimpled elbows and knuckles, nicotine skin, and lips as thin and straight as a surgical incision. Talk came hard for her and I was pretty sure it was a character trait that preceded her daughter’s murder.
This morning she wore a sleeveless, formless blouse—a faded mauve and powder blue floral print that reminded me of a decorative tissue box. It billowed, untucked, over black stretch jeans piped with red. Her blue tennis shoes were speckled with bleach spots. Her hair was short and wavy, corn colored above dark roots. Earring slits creased her lobes but she wore no jewelry. Behind bifocals, her eyes continued to reject mine.
She patted Chondra’s head, and the girl pressed her face against a thick, soft arm. Tiffani had walked into the living room and was staring at a picture on the wall, tapping one foot fast.
Evelyn Rodriguez said, “Okay, then, I’ll just wait down in the car.”
“If it gets too hot, feel free to come up.”
“The heat don’t bother me.” She raised a forearm and glanced at a too-small wristwatch. “How long we talking about this time?”
“Let’s aim for an hour, give or take.”
“Last time was twenty minutes.”
“I’d like to try for a little longer today.”
She frowned. “Okay . . . can I smoke down there?”
“Outside the house? Sure.”
She muttered something.
“Anything you’d like to tell me?” I said.
“Me?” She freed one finger, poked a breast, and smiled. “Nah. Be good, girlies.”
Stepping out on the terrace, she closed the door. Tiffani kept examining the picture. Chondra touched the doorknob and licked her lips. She had on a white Snoopy T-shirt, red shorts, and sandals with no socks. A paper-wrapped Fruit Roll-Up extended from one pocket of the shorts. Her arms and legs were pasty and chubby, her face broad and puggish, topped by white-blond hair drawn into very long, very tight pigtails. The hair gleamed, almost metallic, incongruous above the plain face. Puberty might turn her pretty. I wondered what else it might bring.
She nibbled her lower lip. My smile went unnoticed or unbelieved.
“How are you, Chondra?”
She shrugged again, kept her shoulders up, and looked at the floor. Ten months her sister’s senior, she was an inch shorter and seemed less mature. During the first session, she hadn’t said a word, content to sit with her hands in her lap as Tiffani talked on.
“Do anything fun this week?”
She shook her head. I placed a hand on her shoulder and she went rigid until I removed it. The reaction made me wonder about some kind of abuse. How many layers of this family would I be able to peel back?
The file on my nightstand was my preliminary research. Before-bed reading for the strong stomached.
Legal jargon, police prose, unspeakable snapshots. Perfectly typed transcripts with impeccable margins.
Ruthanne Wallace reduced to a coroner’s afternoon.
Wound depths, bone rills . . .
Donald Dell’s mug shot, wild-eyed, black-bearded, sweaty.
“And then she got mean on me—she knew I didn’t handle mean but that didn’t stop her, no way. And then I just—you know—lost it. It shouldn’ta happened. What can I say?”
I said, “Do you like to draw, Chondra?”
“Well, maybe we’ll find something you like in the playroom.”
She shrugged and looked down at the carpet.
Tiffani was fingering the frame of the picture. A George Bellows boxing print. I’d bought it, impulsively, in the company of a woman I no longer saw.
“Like the drawing?” I said.
She turned around and nodded, all cheekbones and nose and chin. Her mouth was very narrow and crowded with big, misaligned teeth that forced it open and made her look perpetually confused. Her hair was dishwater, cut institutionally short, the bangs hacked crookedly. Some kind of food stain specked her upper lip. Her nails were dirty, her eyes an unremarkable brown. Then she smiled and the look of confusion vanished. At that moment she could have modeled, sold anything.
“Yeah, it’s cool.”
“What do you especially like about it?”
“Yeah,” she said, punching air. “Action. Like WWA.”
“WWA,” I said. “World Wrestling?”
She pantomimed an uppercut. “Pow poom.” Then she looked at her sister and scowled, as if expecting support.
Chondra didn’t move.
“Pow poom,” said Tiffani, advancing toward her. “Welcome to WWA fighting, I’m Crusher Creeper and this is the Red Viper in a grudge match of the century. Ding!” Bell-pull pantomime.
She laughed, nervously. Chondra chewed her lip and tried to smile.
“Aar,” said Tiffani, coming closer. She pulled the imaginary cord again. “Ding. Pow poom.” Hooking her hands, she lurched forward with Frankenstein-monster unsteadiness. “Die, Viper! Aaar!”
She grabbed Chondra and began tickling her arms. The older girl giggled and tickled back, clumsily. Tiffani broke free and began circling, punching air. Chondra started chewing her lip, again.
I said, “C’mon, guys,” and took them to the library. Chondra sat immediately at the play table. Tiffani paced and shadowboxed, hugging the periphery of the room like a toy on a track, muttering and jabbing.
Chondra watched her, then plucked a sheet of paper off the top of a stack and picked up a crayon. I waited for her to draw, but she put the crayon down and watched her sister.
“Do you guys watch wrestling at home?” I said.
“Roddy does,” said Tiffani, without breaking step.
“Roddy’s your grandmother’s husband?”
Nod. Jab. “He’s not our grampa. He’s Mexican.”
“He likes wrestling?”
“Uh-huh. Pow poom.”
I turned to Chondra. She hadn’t moved. “Do you watch wrestling on TV, too?”
Shake of the head.
“She likes Surfriders,” said Tiffani. “I do, too, sometimes. And Millionaire’s Row.”
Chondra bit her lip.
“Millionaire’s Row,” I said. “Is that the one where rich people have all sorts of problems?”
“They die,” said Tiffani. “Sometimes. It’s really for real.” She put her arms down and stopped circling. Coming over to us, she said, “They die because money and materials are the roots of sins and when you lay down with Satan, your rest is never peaceful.”
“Do the rich people on Millionaire’s Row lay down with Satan?”
“Sometimes.” She resumed her circuit, striking out at unseen enemies.
“How’s school?” I asked Chondra.
She shook her head and looked away.
“We didn’t start yet,” said Tiffani.
“Gramma said we didn’t have to.”
“Do you miss seeing your friends?”
“Can I talk to Gramma about that?”
She looked at Chondra. The older girl was peeling the paper wrapper off a crayon.
Tiffani nodded. Then: “Don’t do that. They’re his.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“You shouldn’t destroy other people’s stuff.”
“True,” I said. “But some things are meant to be used up. Like crayons. And these crayons are here for you.”
“Who bought them?” said Tiffani.
“Destroying’s Satan’s work,” said Tiffani, spreading her arms and rotating them in wide circles.
I said, “Did you hear that in church?”
She didn’t seem to hear. Punched the air. “He laid down with Satan.”
Chondra’s mouth dropped open. “Stop,” she said, very softly.
Tiffani came over and dropped her arm over her sister’s shoulder. “It’s okay. He’s not our dad anymore, remember? Satan turned him into a bad spirit and he got all his sins wrapped up like one. Like a big burrito.”
Chondra turned away from her.
“Come on,” said Tiffani, rubbing her sister’s back. “Don’t worry.”
“Wrapped up?” I said.
“Like one,” she explained to me. “The Lord counts up all your good deeds and your sins and wraps them up. So when you die, He can look right away and know if you go up or down. He’s going down. When he gets there, the angels’ll look at the package and know all he done. And then he’ll burn.”
She shrugged. “That’s the truth.”
Chondra’s eyes pooled with tears. She tried to remove Tiffani’s arm from her shoulder, but the younger girl held fast.
“It’s okay,” said Tiffani. “You got to talk about the truth.”
“Stop,” said Chondra.
“It’s okay,” Tiffani insisted. “You got to talk to him.” She looked at me. “So he’ll write a good book for the judge and he’ll never get out.”
Chondra looked at me.
I said, “Actually, what I write won’t change how much time he spends in jail.”
“Maybe,” insisted Tiffani. “If your book tells the judge how evil he is, then maybe he could put him in longer.”
“Was he ever evil to you?”
Chondra shook her head.
Tiffani said, “He hit us.”
“With his hand or something else?”
“Never a stick or a belt or something else?”
Another headshake from Chondra. Tiffani’s was slower, reluctant.
“Not a lot, but sometimes,” I said.
“When we were bad.”
“Making a mess—going near his bike—he hit Mom more. Right?” Prodding Chondra. “He did.”
Chondra gave a tiny nod, grabbed the crayon, and started peeling again. Tiffani watched but didn’t stop her.
“That’s why we left him,” she said. “He hit her all the time. And then he came after her with lust and sin in his heart and killed her—tell the judge that, you’re rich, he’ll listen to you!”
Chondra began crying. Tiffani patted her and said, “It’s okay, we got to.”
I got a tissue box. Tiffani took it from me and wiped her sister’s eyes. Chondra pressed the crayon to her lips.
“Don’t eat it,” said Tiffani. “It’s poison.”
Chondra let go and the crayon flew out of her hand and landed on the floor. Tiffani retrieved it and placed it neatly alongside the box.
Chondra was licking her lips. Her eyes were closed and one soft hand was fisted.
“Actually,” I said, “it’s not poisonous, just wax with color in it. But it probably doesn’t taste too good.”
Chondra opened her eyes. I smiled and she tried to smile, producing only a small rise in one corner of her mouth.
Tiffani said, “Well, it’s not food.”
“No, it isn’t.”
She paced some more. Boxed and muttered.
I said, “Let me go over what I told you last week. You’re here because your father wants you to visit him in jail. My job is to find out how you feel about that, so I can tell the judge.”
“Why doesn’t the judge ask us?”
“He will,” I said. “He’ll be talking to you, but first he wants me to—”
“Because that’s my job—talking to kids about their feelings. Finding out how they really—”
“We don’t want to see him,” said Tiffani. “He’s an insument of Satan.”
“An insument! He laid all down with Satan and became a sinful spirit. When he dies, he’s going to burn in hell, that’s for sure.”
Chondra’s hands flew to her face.
“Stop!” said Tiffani. She rushed over to her sister, but before she got there, Chondra stood and let out a single, deep sob. Then she ran for the door, swinging it open so hard it almost threw her off balance.
She caught it, then she was out.
Tiffani watched her go, looking tiny and helpless.
“You got to tell the truth,” she said.
I said, “Absolutely. But sometimes it’s hard.”
She nodded. Now her eyes were wet.
She paced some more.
I said, “Your sister’s older but it looks like you take care of her.”
She stopped, faced me, gave a defiant stare, but seemed comforted.
“You take good care of her,” I said.
“That must get hard sometimes.”
Her eyes flickered. She put her hands on her hips and jutted her chin.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“She’s my sister.” She stood there, knocking her hands against her legs.
I patted her shoulder.
She sniffed, then walked away.
“You got to tell the truth,” she said.
“Yes, you do.”
Punch, jab. “Pow poom . . . I wanna go home.”