The last decade of the Twentieth Century was less than half over when we had one of the wettest springs on record in Western Washington. That’s saying something when you live between the Japanese Current and the peaks of the Cascade Mountains. It hadn’t been all that long since the Berlin Wall was torn down, which I remember because a friend of mine who had been there brought me a chunk of concrete from the Wall to use as a paperweight.
It was late April. I had an appointment in the state capitol that afternoon, a family with a missing daughter. My VW hydroplaned most of the way down the interstate from Seattle, banging in and out of the unrepaired ruts and shoved around by the wheel-spray of speeding eighteen-wheelers that had dug those ruts.
West of Olympia, off Highway 8, my scribbled directions led to a rural neighborhood. The homes stood on small plots of acreage cross-fenced for horses. The few horses visible stood hip-shot, as if they suspected spring had been cancelled. I followed a bright new school bus, shiny in the rain, as it distributed a dozen or so grade-school kids in slickers or ski jackets. They trudged up different driveways like penitents on the way to confession. A whole winter of rain can dampen the spirits of even Western Washington kids.
The house I was looking for turned out to be a sprawling old rambler on the shore of Oyster Bay. Mature Douglas firs were spaced across the property. I parked under one. A woman opened the front door before I reached it. She was tall and big-boned, and it took a moment to notice she carried a lot more on her hips than was fashionable. Her pale face had good bones, but its relative gauntness didn’t go with the hips; it didn’t take a trained detective to suspect some kind of diet in progress. Her light hair appeared to be fading rather than turning grey. There were laugh lines around her wide mouth, but she wasn’t laughing now. She wore jeans and a man’s green silk shirt. No makeup, no jewelry.
“Mr. Hummel? I’m Mildred Filmore.”
She offered a firm handshake and led me through a spacious foyer into a big living room with wide picture windows on the bay. Across the rain-speckled water, lights of other homes twinkled cozily through near-solid evergreens.
“A great view,” I said.
“Yes. In the clear weather, you can just see Mount Rainier off in the distance. We bought this place when Ron passed his probation with the state. Of course we could never afford a place out here now.”
It was a canned speech she must have given a hundred times, without thought or effort. She got me settled with coffee and took hers to an upright recliner across the room.
“I hope you will excuse me,” she said formally. “I just feel awkward about this whole thing.” She paused. “I don’t really know what to say to you. Somehow it feels disloyal to Jennifer to talk about her to strangers. I’m sorry. I hope I haven’t offended you.”
I revised my opinion on her appearance from diet-in-progress to stress. “It’s not that easy to get me to take offense. I am a stranger, and in the same circumstances, I wouldn’t know what to say to me, either.”
“Do you have children, Mr. Hummel?”
An old pain came and went. It was a predictable question. And none of her business. I didn’t like to discuss my personal affairs with strangers, either.
“I’m not married,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I, sometimes. On the other hand, sometimes I’m not sorry at all.”
“I guess it’s the same for married people, except in reverse.” Then she put her hand to her mouth as if she had made a damning admission.
I smiled past her discomfort. “My Georgia grandmother was always quoting a piece of a poem: She’s sure she missed some paradise, because she had to stick and grind — while he, on aching feet, is sure he left it somewhere far behind.”
She really looked at me then, for the first time. “I’ve never heard that. I guess I thought private investigators who quote poetry were something on TV. Do you know what those lines are from?”
I shook my head. “My grandmother had what you might call eclectic tastes in poetry. I was raised on stuff like that. I never thought to ask her.”
“Eclectic,” she repeated. “Did my husband tell you I’m a librarian?”
“No, ma’am.” I sipped some of my coffee.
“You must have had an interesting childhood, growing up with a grandmother like that.”
“You could even say lucky, and I wouldn’t disagree. The thing is, we’re not here to interview me. We’re here to interview you.”
She didn’t smile. “I guess I’ve always been good at putting off unpleasant things. This is so — well, melodramatic.”
“But you share your husband’s concern about your daughter’s whereabouts?”
“Share?” She didn’t like the taste of the word. “I’ve been nagging him for days to do something! It’s just like him to put something off and off, and then take the drastic step.”
“Have either of you been up to Auburn to check on her?”
“I was afraid to,” she said simply. “She’s so damned — independent. Acted as if I was trying to smother her, if I showed any interest in her affairs.” Her voice trembled with something like righteous indignation. “She said I didn’t want to turn loose the apron strings. Me!” She stopped abruptly, having found it too easy after all to talk about her daughter to a stranger.
“So you’re afraid everything is just fine, and she will chew you up good for thinking she couldn’t be alone for a month without your interference?”
She sighed. “She has the most cutting tongue I’ve ever heard. Ron says it’s our own fault: heredity, you know. If we hadn’t wanted bright, witty kids we shouldn’t have” — she made a face — “spawned.”
I couldn’t help laughing. She smiled too, finally. It all seemed so ordinary and normal: Ozzie and Harriet in Olympia. Just a couple of doting parents, struggling with the fact that their bright, witty kids were growing up and away.
Perhaps too far away, in this instance.
A shadow crossed her face, as if she had caught my thought. She sat forward and carefully placed her coffee cup on the floor.
“I can stand anything as long as nothing bad has happened to her. The last time we spoke on the phone, she hurt my feelings. I can’t even remember what she said now, that’s how important it was. I hung up on her. Oh, God!” Tears began to leak silently from her eyes.
“I never even told her I loved her. I always tell her. I kept waiting for her to call back. So we could make up. When she didn’t, I tried to call. There was no answer. I even tried to call at three in the morning! I just go through the motions of the day, waiting for a chance to call her. And she’s never there.” She got up slowly, as if her unspoken fears had rendered her infirm. “Pl-please excuse me, Mr. Hummel. Ron will be home soon.”
She left me alone in the gathering gloom of the afternoon. A lone cormorant arrowed low across the bay, like something evil on the way back to hell. I drank my coffee and tried not to believe in premonitions.
Before I could get too morbid, tires crunched on gravel and her husband came home to his sad, chilly house on the bay.