Follow the Dotted Line
Introducing the Andrea Bravos Mysteries
By Nancy Gilsenan Hersage
Published by Kindle Press 2016
This is book is for:
My jet packing children, Tom, Molly, and Shannon
My sibs, great and gracious, Norma and Russ
My wonderful mom, Elnor, and my enigmatic dad, Walt
My friend and partner in screenwriting, Shirley
And the Lorna of my life, Barbara
A special thanks to my college roommates—
Sandy, who helped so much by proofing the manuscript and by sharing my ridiculous worldview, and Cathy, who helped me remember it’s never too late to get that story down on paper.
Mitch Kornacky stared, more than a little appalled, at the human ashes in the Styrofoam burger container. The young entrepreneur could not take his eyes off the box that his assistant had just brought into his office, set on his desk, and opened gingerly.
“Not the sandwich you were expecting. Right, boss?” asked Billy, the bearer of both the box and the bad news.
Mitch nodded in the affirmative, as the assistant then handed him a small, handwritten card that had arrived in the same package as the box of ashes.
The underling was feeling a touch squeamish. “I think I’m done opening your mail.”
“Thanks for your undying devotion, Billy,” hissed Mitch, still reeling from the delivery. “How did it come?”
“God, she didn’t even have enough respect to send my poor father FedEx,” Mitch snorted, as he read the accompanying card.
“Your father’s wife? She sent this?” the assistant asked, feeling his duty now included closing the squeaky yellow box with as much reverence as possible.
“His fourth,” Mitch pointed out. “They’ve been married less than a year. Never met her.”
Mitch’s eyes wandered to the north-facing office window with a view of the Getty Center on the hills above. His father had never actually seen Mitch’s company in the fashionable Santa Monica office tower or met any of his nearly 50 employees.
“Did you get an eyeful of that note . . . accompanying the . . . remains?” Billy prompted.
Mitch looked down at the desk and read it for a second time.
Your father died recently. I had him cremated, so I could send him to you. So there’s no need for any more annoying phone calls about your new house or your business. Just leave me alone or I’ll put a hex on you.
Tilda Trivette Kornacky
“My old man sure could pick ‘em, couldn’t he?” mused Mitch.
“How old was he?”
“Almost 60. She’s, like, 32.”
“Whoa. Is she serious about the hex thing?”
“He met her at a palm reading. That pretty much says it all,” Mitch announced. “You wanna put him someplace? I gotta make a call.”
“What place?” the assistant asked, warily.
“Ah, how ’bout the fridge?”
“Why not? In the freezer compartment. Just be sure to mark the container.”
The underling mulled over the request for a moment.
“How do you want me . . .”
“Shit, Billy, I have no idea,” Mitch said, with more emotion than he intended, probably because he was feeling more than he expected. “This is the part where you show me some initiative, okay?”
Billy walked solemnly out of the office, hoping to impress his superior, then glanced quickly from side to side, desperate to attract an audience with questions about what he was carrying; he was going to dine out on this one for a long time.
Mitch picked up his cell and dialed.
“Hey, Mitch. What’s shakin’ on the Left Coast?”
“Hey, Ian. Glad I caught you. I’ve got some sad news.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
Ian missed a beat. In fact, he missed about four quarter notes, which was considerable for a man who made his living playing music. Then he said, “Dad? Our dad?”
“The one in Texas?”
“You got another one?”
“Jeez, I’d forgotten he was alive.”
“That’s mean, Ian.”
“I’m being serious. I literally haven’t talked to him in ten years. What happened?”
“No clue. His latest life partner just sent me his ashes in the snail mail. With a little sidebar saying: ‘Don’t call me or I’ll put a hex on you.’”
“Is this the palm reader?” Ian asked.
“And woman-of-curses, apparently. Dad was always into exotica.”
“God, Ian, you’re starting to sound like a girl. You’ve got to find a different band.”
“Not a chance. Making too much money, bro. Girl bands are very big in Nashville these days. Doing the Tonight Show next week and opening for the Chili Peppers in Atlanta the week after.”
“Well, double jeez yourself, old buddy!”
“Thank you, thank you,” Ian said and then realized this was probably not the time to brag about his career. He sucked in a deep breath and released a sigh of heavy responsibility. “Who’s telling Mom?”
“Not me,” Mitch said. “In fact, why don’t you call Sam later tonight and then have her call Lilly in the morning. Let them figure it out.”
“Good solution. What should I tell them?”
“Just say he arrived in a fast-food container this morning, and I’m doing everything I can.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m keeping him on ice.”
“Really? Why do you have him on ice?”
“I’m not sure. It just seemed appropriate.”
Ian nodded and thought for a moment about what, exactly, was appropriate at a time like this.
“Are you, you know, upset, Mitch? That he’s dead, I mean,” Ian asked.
“Too early to tell, I guess,” replied his brother.
“Yeah,” Ian sighed again. “What about a funeral?”
“No need to rush. Let’s talk to the girls, and we can decide later. We can have it at my new house.”
“Cool. I saw the pictures online. It’s beautiful, Mitch.”
“Right. Sounds like a plan. Sad day, buddy.”
“Sad day. Later, bro.”
Samantha Kornacky Bravos, who had changed her last name to satisfy her mother’s political agenda and now kept it to satisfy her own, heard her cell ringing but was too out of breath to answer right away. She had just conquered the bridge spanning the Firth of Forth in a pair of truly outstanding cross trainers. Her watch announced it was a new personal best, which would put her among the top 115 women finishing this year’s Scottish Bridge 10K.
“Yo,” she wheezed, “Ian! I can’t believe you called. What time is it there?”
“About 2:30 in the morning. I just finished a show,” her younger brother said.
“I didn’t think you even knew about today. And if you did, I didn’t think you’d have the social skills to remember.”
“Remember?” he said without thinking—and confirming that he didn’t actually have the social skills to remember.
“My race,” she prompted.
“Oh, yeah, your race,” he said weakly, once again making it abundantly clear he had no idea what race she was talking about.
Okay, Sam thought, this phone call is evidently not about me. “Right,” she said. “Just give me your congratulations, Ian, and we’ll move on.”
“Congratulations,” Ian repeated, sounding as inept as he felt.
“Thanks,” she answered. She was determined to be pleased with her running accomplishment, even if no one else noticed. “And congratulations to you and the Girls with Grits. I hear you’re going to be on the Tonight Show.”
Sam, he knew, had enough social skills for the both of them. While he paid no attention to her career teaching history at the University of Edinburgh, she remained one of his biggest fans. Samantha did everything well, including being a big sister. Still, this conversation would not go well, that was a given, even before he picked up the phone.
“I’ve got some news, Sam,” he said. “About Dad.”
She didn’t respond, but he could feel the heat in her cheeks all the way across the Atlantic.
“Mitch got a letter from his latest wife. Tilda. He’s dead.”
“Oh.” The word popped out involuntarily, and they both waited for the emotion to follow. Nothing came.
“He didn’t come to my wedding,” she said, evenly.
“Or do one thing to acknowledge the birth of Ella and Jake.”
“I haven’t heard from him in 12 years.”
“He was an alcoholic,” Ian reminded her, trying not to sound too sympathetic.
“He was a narcissist,” she spat, and now he could visualize the small puffs of steam accompanying her words.
“He did his best, Sam.”
“I don’t think so,” she retorted, her voice cracking with bitterness. “He was a son of a bitch!”
“Okay,” Ian agreed, hoping the worst was over. “That’s a big ten-four. I haven’t talked to him in a decade myself. But I thought I should call to let you know.”
With that, his big sister retreated.
“Sorry, Ian,” she said, mollified by the fact that he, too, hadn’t stayed in contact with their old man. “Sorry about my attitude. And I certainly never wished him dead. So what happened?”
He filled her in on the burger box and ashes. Then he told her about the hex.
“She’s the palm reader, right?”
“Mitch said Dad liked to call her a spiritualist.”
“Yes, well, Dad was always one for inflating job titles, wasn’t he?” She let her mind wander to the obvious thought. “Has anyone told Mom?”
“Not yet. I was hoping you’d call Lilly, and then maybe she could call Mom, . . . and then, also, maybe you two could kick around some funeral ideas . . .”
Sam took a moment to process everything he had packed into this last sentence. “I’m sensing a major burden shift here, Ian. From the boys to the girls.”
“No. Not fair,” he said, firmly. “Mitch has volunteered to work on the funeral or memorial service or whatever. He likes, you know, hosting and wants to have it at his new house. I think he just wants some input from you two.”
“And you’d just like to run away and tune your guitar?”
He felt that familiar, toxic mix of shame and lame invading his guilt stream. “You know me, Sam. That’s what I do.”
“I know,” she said. “Thank god you’re one of four children, Ian. You would have made a very disappointing only child. Still, for all your social shortcomings, little brother, you do tune—and play—the guitar beautifully. Love you.”
“Love you, too,” he said, feeling the warmth of her forgiveness.
And they both hung up.
By the time the phone tree reached Meridian, Idaho, a sweet little suburb of Boise, Lilly Kornacky Bravos (who shared both the political views and last name of her mother and younger sister) was lying on the sofa nearly comatose. The four preschool boys she had been shepherding since 5:30 a.m. were at a two-hour baby gym class, and her husband was pouring sugarless mochas, while telling her about the fluctuating price of the rhinestones he had just ordered from Korea.
Lil and her husband, Joey, were living the American Dream. Not the current one, the one from the 1950s. They had left Silicon Valley—with its genuinely insane real estate prices, rotten traffic, and high-paying, high-tech jobs—for the new California suburbs, which were located anywhere between Sacramento and the Canadian border. Boise was full of expats, the houses were really affordable, and the public schools still worked. Joey had gone from life as an Internet traffic guru in Menlo Park to manufacturing rhinestone t-shirts out of his four-car garage in the potato state. And with the surprising success of sales to old ladies in Bunco clubs and teenage girls on cheerleading squads, along with the low cost of living, he was killing it. Dad, Mom, and their four little towheads were living like the Cleavers of Beaver fame in a house only a venture capitalist could afford in the Bay Area. And Lil was sublimely happy and painfully exhausted each and every day.
“Hi, Sam” Lil said, picking up the phone, as Joey handed her one of the early morning calorie-free caffeine cocktails.
“It finally happened.”
Lil shot up straight to a sitting position. “What?!” she said, as her drink collided with a hand grenade her four-year-old had created out of oversized Legos and left perched on the arm of the sofa. The whipped cream atop the coffee cascaded onto the carpet.
“Mitch got a letter today from Tilda the Magnificent.”
“Oh, god,” Lil gasped. “That’s terrible.”
“Come on, Sam. The man is—was our father.” Lil did not adore Mark Kornacky. Or even like him all that much. But she had a sentimental attachment to the institution of parenthood and kept in contact. It was pretty much a one-way thoroughfare; she sent emails and photos and birthday cards, while he generally responded with indifference. In all honesty, she felt, indifference was his biggest failing. He was never a mean man or abusive. He was just, well, self-absorbed. And more than a little irresponsible about meeting his financial obligations. Still the four of them were his offspring. A platitude she now repeated for Sam’s benefit.
“Whatever he was, he was our father, Sam.”
“Yes, yes,” Sam replied quickly, not wanting to argue the point. “I’m working on facing up to that issue. Sorry. Anyway, Mitch called Ian. Ian called me. I’m calling you. And you’re calling—”
“—Mom,” Lil pronounced, finishing her sister’s sentence.
“You got it.”
“Yes, I apparently have. Nice handoff. Thank you very much.” She inhaled, as if she’d just received a felony conviction, and went on. “So what’s the story?”
“The story is that Tilda sent Mitch a carton of ashes.”
“Ashes? Ashes? That’s creepy.”
“And a note saying she’ll put a hex on anyone who doesn’t leave her alone.”
“Even creepier. I wonder what that’s about?”
“Jealousy is my guess,” Sam ventured. “LOL because he never actually paid us any attention.”
“Hmm,” Lil reflected. “He told me she was a stunner.”
“No surprise. The man had his priorities. What else do you know about her?”
“Not much. Brunette clairvoyant with a birth date in the neighborhood of mine.”
“Now that’s creepy.”
“I think they were both Captain Morgan fans; he told me that’s the reason they were paired on Match.com. I’ve only received one communiqué from him since they got married. A newspaper clipping of their nuptials, along with a free coupon on the same page for twenty percent off at Red Lobster. Don’t know if that was an accident or some kind of gesture.”
“Always the gentlemen,” Sam said. “Mitch wants us to come up with some ideas for a memorial service. He wants to have it at his new house, and he’ll be the emcee”
“And D.J., no doubt. Can’t wait to get a look at his Dearly Departed mix.”
“He does have great taste in music, Lil. So you got any ideas?”
“No. It will take all my creative energy to find a way to get Joey and the four boys in the car for the drive to California. How are Ella and Jake?”
“She has pinkeye from the nursery, and he’s excitedly awaiting his turn.”
“You’re still coming to UCLA for the World War II Underground lecture series?” Lil asked, anxiously.
“Of course. And you’re still coming to see me while I’m in LA?”
“Forty-eight hours is as long as I can get away from the boys,” sighed Lil. “That’s with three shifts of babysitters and their first overnight at the in-laws. I’m still working out the last ten hours of day care.”
“God, Lilly, what’s Joey going to be doing all that time?”
“An order of rhinestone embossed sweatpants and jackets for the University of Alabama gymnastics team.”
“You have chosen such a life of your own free will, you realize this?” said Sam.
Lil could feel her sister shaking her head in dismay. She rose to her own defense. “Well, at least I’m not married to a one-eyed golfer whose only claim to fame is a tie for third at the Scottish Open.”
“He’s not actually blind in that eye, Lilly; it’s a misshapen cornea. And he hits a helluva fade!”
“Oh, my goodness,” said Lil, in a voice filled with mock triumph. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you defend your husband so vehemently, Samantha.”
“I’m hanging up now, Lil, with the satisfaction of knowing that you are the one calling Mom. Cheers.”
Loss of Gravity
At 57, Andrea Bader Bravos felt herself slipping. Slowly, to be sure, but still slipping. She lived in a spacious but dated townhouse in Valencia, California. It was perched just 1000 feet above the San Fernando Valley—and about fifteen miles north of Hollywood, where she had once worked but didn’t work very much anymore. She had spent most of her career writing treatments and, occasionally, scripts for mediocre TV movies-of-the-week. That business began imploding with the arrival of reality television; along with it had gone Andy’s center of gravity.
Andy’s four children had noticed her fumbling around for meaning the last few years, but they didn’t really understand it. Even if they did, they were too busy to offer any solutions. Mostly, they kept suggesting she retire, as if that were a choice. People in Andy’s business didn’t retire, they were retired by the forces that eventually swept everyone in the entertainment business out to sea: an inability to keep up with the breathtaking speed of pop culture—and aging skin.
At several points in her life, Andy had considered herself an unusually relevant person, both a rebel and a crusader for justice. As a 16-year-old feminist pioneer, she was the first girl to work the cash register at the new McDonald’s in Glendale, California. She had helped integrate the marching band at her small liberal arts college. And when she divorced 22 years ago, she had dropped the name Kornacky, as a sign she was no longer beholden to the patriarchy. Now Andy wondered about the value of those accomplishments. Especially the name change. She chose Bravos—telling her four children that it symbolized courage—and asked them to join her in making a political statement. Unfortunately, they were all under twelve at the time and had no idea what she was talking about. In the end, the kids split into their usual teams: girls on one side, boys on the other. Looking back, she thought her activism might have done more harm than good. After all, most of McDonald’s underpaid employees were now women, not men. Her liberal arts college had gone belly up. And her four adult children never missed an opportunity to rehash the name change episode every time they managed to gather for a holiday meal.
So it was that Andy Bravos, aging activist and unemployed writer, stood watering the drooping daisies on her patio that June day—feeling slightly irrelevant—when the call came about the death of her ex-husband.
“This is tragic! Just tragic,” Andy pronounced.
“Don’t sound so indignant, Mom. Or surprised,” said Lil, trying to keep things on an even keel. “He drank enough to inebriate a rugby team. And he never exercised.”
“But he wasn’t that old, for god’s sake! Sixty.”
“Lots of people die at 60, Mom. And since you are fueled almost exclusively by bean burritos and hominy grits and you walk four miles a day, you will probably not be one of them. Whether you like it or not, you’ll live until you’re 90.”
“This is not about me, Lil.”
“Yes, it is. We all know you are in the middle of a mortality crisis—”
“Mortality crisis. As a consequence, Dad’s death comes at a bad time for you.”
“You make me sound pathetic, Lil.”
“That’s beside the point. The point is, given his lifestyle, this was bound to happen sooner rather than later.”
Andy shut up and thought about that. “Okay,” she admitted. “I guess that’s true.”
Lil had a rather painful knack for cutting to the chase in most things. Over the past few years, Andy had suckered her elder daughter into writing several spec movie scripts with her. Lil’s facility with words and instincts for a good story were remarkable. But with all those preschool boys around the house now, Lil didn’t have time anymore. Lately, it seemed her daughter was reduced to using her verbal karate skills on the phone with her mother.
“Okay,” Andy repeated in a calmer voice. “So how did he die?”
“I don’t know. Tilda didn’t say.”
“I mean, in the gutter? In his sleep? Watching the 49ers? Was there no color coverage at all?”
“Just the note about a hex if anybody bothered her.”
Andy paced the patio, cell in hand. “How does she get away with that? Not even telling us the cause of death?”
“He’s not your husband anymore, so what does it matter?”
“But he’s your father. Don’t you want to know? You deserve to.”
Lil counted silently to three, then responded. “Let’s try not to make a big deal out of this. All right? There is no principle at stake here. “
“You are his children. You have a right to know!”
“It’s not that important. Really.”
“She should have told us. Someone should ask her.”
“Oh no, no, no!” Lil said, emphatically. “That’s exactly what we are not going to do, Mom. Dad had a thing for crazy women.” Lil heard the hiss on the other end of the line. “Present company excepted.”
“The older he got, the more he drank and the loopier his wives. Let’s just keep our distance and get on with things. If you’re really that concerned, why don’t you get a copy of his death certificate?”
When Andy said nothing, Lil got a little worried. “Mom?”
“I am stunned by your good sense.”
“I’m going to do that.”
“Okay,” Lil said, skeptically. “Without actually making any contact with the grieving widow, right?”
“That’s good, Mom.”
“Yes, it is.” Andy replied, suddenly feeling herself become, well, a little more relevant. “I can’t do anything about your dad’s death. But I can at least find out what caused it. I’m sure, as his children, you’ll all feel better knowing.”
Lil decided it was easier to agree than to point out that the only person who seemed to want that piece of information was Andy. “Yes, I’m sure we will all feel better if you take on that little crusade.”
“You’re mocking me, Lil.”
“I do it with love, Mother.”
“I’m going to get that certificate anyway.”
“I’m sure you will.”
That settled, Andy moved on. “What about a funeral?” she asked.
“Mitch is taking charge of that.”
“Oh, god, not another one of his music mixes,” Andy said, thinking out loud. “Still, I suppose we all grieve in our own way.”
Sensing her mother’s mind wandering, Lil saw an opportunity to change the subject and jumped at it. “How’s cousin Harley?” she asked.
Andy snapped to attention again. “He’s driving me nuts. My sister sold me a real bill of goods when she sent him out here to stay this year.”
“What do you mean? I thought he was going to school somewhere in Valencia.”
“So did I. I figured it was either CalArts, up the road, or the local junior college across the street. But it’s not.”
“What else is there?”
“Something called Our Savior’s Tabernacle University in Lancaster.”
“What the hell is a Tabernacle University?”
“An oxymoron. And so is this kid. I had to buy him a car just so he could get there, for crying out loud. And he’s so far behind academically that they made him come out for summer school before they’ll let him start as a freshman in the fall.”
“Can’t you send him back to Nebraska?”
“Apparently not. My sister has gotten herself into a job training program and can’t be distracted,” Andy said.
“Aunt Pam is in a job training program? But she’s older than you are!”
“She has no pension, so she’s starting a new career. In the bakery industry. With a concentration in cake decoration. In the meantime, I am babysitting her son.”
“Well, at least you have someone to keep you company. Right?”
“Harley is not company, Lil. He is an annoyance. And there is a real possibility I will kill him shortly.”
Lil knew immediately where this was going and tried to head it off. “I hear the sound of peeing, Mom, and it’s not in the toilet.”
Andy charged ahead, as if she hadn’t heard what Lil said. “Let’s do another script together, Lilly. We’ll have a great time. We can do it over the phone. On Skype. I’ll do all the typing.”
“Really. Mom. I don’t have the time.”
“I know I could get my mojo back if we just worked together—”
“Oh, there goes another jet stream. The boys have developed a herding instinct lately. I think I see the twins with diapers down behind the couch . . .”
“Lilly, I need—”
“Oops! Gotta run. Love you.”
Lil hung up, and Andy felt another little slap of futility hit her in the face. Her career really was over. Now her ex was dead and gone. And her leech of a nephew was upstairs in the guest bedroom glued to a novel about the End of Days.
Israelites in LA
If Andy had been insensitive about giving her kids a new last name, her sister had been downright idiotic about giving hers a first one. After only one date with a long-distance truck driver named Phil Davidson, Pam announced she had found the love of her life and was going to marry him. By the third date, she felt they were destined to have a son, and he would be called—Harley. And so it came to pass, both the wedding and the birth. All this might have seemed a little less laughable had Harley been big and beefy and liked motorcycles. But he wasn’t and he didn’t. The Harley Davidson now sharing her domicile was short and doughy. In addition, he appeared to be as dumb as a two-by-four. Even more disturbing was his ambition to become a preacher and establish his own Christian denomination.
Andy knocked on the door of her former guestroom where the future Reverend Harley Davidson currently resided.
“Come on in,” Harley said. He laid the paperback across his chest and smiled up at his aunt.
“How’s the book?” she asked.
“Just tremendous!” he said. “It’s the third one in the Left Behind series. I love it.”
She looked down at the dramatic lettering on the cover of the book, The Rise of Antichrist and instantly felt an affinity with the title character. “Shouldn’t you be reading the Bible or something?”
“This is better.”
“I mean, it’s fiction, so they make it very exciting,” he explained. “The real stuff, you know, like Exodus and Deuteronomy, is kind of boring.”
“In comparison, I mean.”
Andy pondered this and thought it her duty to encourage him to pay more attention to his studies.
“Well, I can’t imagine the Bible’s that boring,” she offered. “I’ve worked with a lot of Israelites in the film business, and they’re generally pretty good storytellers.”
“No kidding? You know some real Israelites here in LA?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
He looked at her in amazement. “We don’t have that many back in Omaha,” he said.
“I suppose you’d have to go looking. But I’m sure they’re there. Anyway, you want some lunch?”
He hesitated, scrunching up his chubby cheeks.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’m kinda tired of burritos.”
“Okay. Why don’t I take you to In ‘n Out Burger?”
“Gosh, I love that place, Aunt Andy.”
“I do, too,” she said. “And I need to get out of the house. Put your cowboy boots on and meet me in the car.”
Valencia was built as a New Town in the 1960s, completely planned to accommodate a Southern California suburban lifestyle. It was one of the few places in Los Angeles County with actual bike lanes and where you could still get a parking spot at the mall. Andy discovered the little gem of a community when she decided to take up golf ten years ago. The public course was cheap and seldom crowded, plus people rarely scoffed if you shanked your tee shot on the first hole. The town had been annexed a few years back and was now part of the City of Santa Clarita, famous for almost nothing except the Six Flags theme park on Magic Mountain Parkway.
Harley and Andy sat outside at a round table with a red and white striped umbrella, eating their animal-style Double Doubles. As the adult in the unlikely pairing, Andy made a feeble attempt to bond.
“You like it here?” Andy asked.
“It’s only been three weeks,” Harley said. “But, yeah, I think so.”
“You miss your family?”
“Not really,” he answered. “Not as much as you miss yours.”
Andy looked at him suspiciously. “What are you talking about?”
“You call your kids all the time.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. And if you don’t call them, they call you. You people never leave each other alone.”
This kid was a master at pushing her into a defensive position. “I guess we’re big talkers,” she said, begrudgingly.
“Tell me about it,” said Harley. “It’s like everything you’re thinking comes right out your mouth.”
“Really!” Andy snorted, nearly choking on her grilled onion. She tried to glare at him, but she couldn’t get a bead on her target because he was slouched over a pool of ketchup, dipping his fries. “We’re all extroverts,” she finally said, by way of explanation. “Except Ian. He’s more of an introvert.”
“The guitar player in Nashville?”
“It’s a steel pedal, “Andy instructed him.
“He’s coming to LA this weekend, right? I mean his band is.”
“They’re playing at the Wiltern.”
“And he’s getting us tickets?”
“Right. For you, me, and Mitch and his girlfriend.”
The pudgy head bobbed up and down with approval. Then he observed solemnly, “I guess you can’t talk all that much if you’re supposed to be playing a guitar and singing. So maybe that’s a good job for him. I don’t think your other kids could, you know, restrain themselves that much.”
Andy tried the glare again, but he was either naturally adept at avoiding eye contact or self-taught. Whichever the case, she’d had about as much conversation as she could stomach. She started to gather up the leftover napkins.
“So who died?” he asked.
She stopped short, crumpled the napkins with a vehemence she generally reserved for representatives of her current cable company and sat back down. “Have you been eavesdropping on my phone conversations, Harley?”
“Nobody has to eavesdrop, Aunt Andy. You get so worked up I can hear you in Dolby Stereo.”
It was not difficult to understand why her sister had exiled the boy to California; the family gene pool had finally produced an unbearable combination of its worst two alleles—cluelessness and cheek. “I’m sorry if my voice bothers you, Harley,” she said, diplomatically. “It is my house, however.”
“I get that,” he said, oblivious to her irritation. “No problem. I just wondered who died.”
“My ex-husband. Mark. You wouldn’t remember him. We were divorced before you were born.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s the dad, right? For all your kids?”
He tilted his round face slightly to the left and opened his eyes so that she really saw them for the first time. Blue. Creamy blue. His best feature by a mile, she mused.
Now Harley rolled his thin lips inward, as if he were contemplating something. “That’s gotta hurt a little, huh? I mean, you probably loved him once.”
“What?” she asked.
“I said you must feel pretty bad.”
It was an uncomfortably perceptive statement from a kid Andy judged to be psychologically below grade level. Because the truth was, she did feel bad. After all, she had been married to Mark Kornacky for 14 years, and they weren’t all miserable. Many of them were damned exciting. He was a man with a big personality who loved to be the center of attention. A guy with good friends and better stories. He could cook. He could sing. He could drink. He could whip up a party on a moment’s notice. People loved him. She loved him. For a while, anyway.
The two had met when he was starting his own production company in Studio City. He was filming a series of exotic-animal cooking shows, a repulsive—but highly popular—niche concept. She was a struggling writer, and he underpaid her for helping with the scripts. They shared the same middle class upbringing, had similar politics, and fit together in a quirky sort of way, like Sonny and Cher or Bert and Ernie. She could never quite find the right simile for their marriage, and maybe that was the problem.
Whatever the attraction, the partnership worked. Until they had children. That Mark Kornacky would be such a spectacular failure as a parent never occurred to her. That it would take child number three for her to begin to notice was her own spectacular failure. By the time baby number four was born, Andy knew it was time to stop. Sadly for everyone concerned, it would take another seven years of his drinking, cheating, and self-indulgent spending for her to take the kids and get out. After that, her ex-husband was rarely seen in the vicinity of his offspring, and they began referring to him as their ‘ex-father.’
“I do feel bad,” Andy finally confessed to the corn-fed minister-in-waiting.
“And your kids must feel bad, too, right?” Harley suggested.
“I’m sure they do. But their dad was more of a myth than an actual presence, so it’s always been hard to know how to feel about him.”
Harley nodded, seeming a little less clueless than he usually looked. “Well, maybe they’ll get a better feel for that when they see his will,” he said.
“Huh?” Andy grunted, dimly.
“You know, his last will and testament. Often absent parents make up for their emotional negligence through their estate.”
Emotional negligence? Where on earth did a mind like Harley Davidson’s have to go to find that many syllables? She was tempted to ask to meet his ventriloquist but was afraid he wouldn’t get the joke—and then was terrified he might.
“Aunt Andy?” he prompted.
“I’m thinking,” she finally said.
“About why nobody thought to mention a will, especially Tilda.”
“I thought to mention it,” Harley pointed out.
“Yes, that’s the other thing I’m thinking,” she said, standing up and pulling the keys out of her purse. “Harley, I don’t get you. I don’t get you at all.”
Located on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, the Wiltern Theater passes for what is an historic building in the City of Angels. That is, it was built in the 1930s. Originally home to vaudeville acts, the Art Deco structure is named for what was once the busiest intersection in the world, just the kind of thing Angelinos would find it necessary to brag about. It seats nearly 2000 people, and Harley Davidson had never seen or imagined anything like it.
“Whoa,” he murmured, prayer-like, as Andy, Mitch, and his girlfriend, Melissa—the family called her ‘The Impresario’—all took their seats. “I guess Ian’s pretty famous. I mean, if he plays here.”
“The band’s pretty famous,” Andy told him. “Ian is just one of the musicians and back-up singers.”
“You know it’s a girl band,” added The Impresario, who was dressed in elegant black spiderweb tights, a leather skirt, and cowboy boots. Harley knew cowboy boots, and he’d never seen a pair like hers in Omaha. “The critics are calling them the pioneers of a new genre.”
“What’s a genre?’ Harley asked.
“A style. Or category,” said Andy.
Harley gnawed on this for a moment. “Oh. You mean the ‘Girls with Grits’ style?”
“No, that’s the name of the band,” The Impresario corrected. “Their record label calls their style Country Candy.”
“Oh,” repeated Harley, very slowly. “I get it.”
Mitch looked at his junior cousin and smirked. “No, you don’t, Harley.”
Harley looked back at the older man quizzically and opened his creamy blue eyes so they were fully visible. “Yes, I do. It’s country music, only it’s sweet, right?” Harley observed.
“Exactly,” pronounced The Impresario. “Pay no attention to the jackass seated next to you.” She elbowed Mitch, who winced.
“Okay, I’ll behave, I promise,” Mitch said, a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Harley. Melissa’s right, I shouldn’t have said that.”
This wasn’t the first time Andy had witnessed Melissa discipline the incredibly successful knucklehead into which her oldest child had grown. She liked this woman, despite the startling streak of white that ran through her jet-black hair and the studded, fingerless gloves that were, evidently, her signature apparel. The girl was gorgeous, Andy had to give her that. And she was accomplished, in a La-La Land sort of way. She was a talent agent for aspiring comics and, in her free time, she manufactured monogrammed leather steering wheel covers for the Aston Martin dealership in Beverly Hills. On any given day, Melissa de Toro was hustling enough money to afford a two-bedroom apartment near the beach in Santa Monica. For the majority of people in Los Angeles, it didn’t get any better than that.
The house lights in the expansive theater dimmed, and the crowd quieted. After the perfect dramatic pause, stage lights electrified, and the band swarmed out from stage left and stage right, taking their places. There was Ian, the shortest and undoubtedly the sweetest of Andy’s brood, wearing a western hat and tight jeans, seating himself at his pedal steel guitar and beaming, as if he had reached nirvana.
In the privacy of the theater’s darkness, Andy smiled to herself. Her son looked so happy. In fact, both of her sons looked happy tonight, she thought. It occurred to her that all four of her children were currently happier than she had any right to expect, given their unsteady upbringing. She had done so much wrong, and yet they’d each turned out so right—so right for themselves and, therefore, so right for her. God, I wonder what I could do to mess up all this bliss, she thought with the predictable panic that always showed up when things were going too smoothly between herself and her children. Then she metaphorically gave herself a sharp slap to obliterate her stinking thinking and willed herself to slide gratefully into the warm, soapy music.
It was an “epic” concert, according to Harley, as the applause finally flamed out and the audience made its way out of the theater, elbow to elbow.
“Where are we meeting Ian?” Andy asked.
“The Tofu Cafe on Western,” Mitch told her.
Harley looked up at his aunt.
“It’s Korean food,” she said.
His lingering excitement seemed to drain away suddenly. “What’s tofu?” he wanted to know.
Andy and Mitch both turned to Melissa to handle this one.
“Anything you want it to be,” she said, putting her hand on Harley’s shoulder. “Kind of like polenta or bean curd.”
Harley’s eyebrows shot skyward.
“You’re only feeding his anxiety,” Mitch pointed out.
“Oh, don’t be scared,” she said, taking the teenager’s hand and smiling seductively. “Stick with me,” Melissa whispered. “I shall lead you to a garden of earthly delights.” His spongy fingers melted into her touch.
“Oh, my god,” quipped Mitch, turning to his mother. “Look at the poor kid’s face.”
“I think he’s just discovered a whole new meaning for the ‘rapture’,” Andy suggested.
They watched the boy walk off with The Impresario, hand-in-hand.
Mitch wrinkled his brow, admiring the awesome power of the woman he was dating. “Uh huh, and she’s probably just committed some kind of statutory offence in the process.”
Besides the exotic Asian food, Harley was treated to one of Koreatown’s finest traditions: Elvis impersonators. Throughout the meal, four different men, three Koreans, and some Anglo in a wig, jumped on stage and did their best to imitate The King, accompanied by a karaoke machine. Andy noticed that her nephew was so absorbed in the entertainment that he plowed through the food without once asking her to identify any of the ingredients.
Andy assumed the conversation between her sons would inevitably turn to the passing of their father, but Ian spent most of the meal filling his older brother in on some financial hiccup the band was experiencing.
“Avocados,” explained Ian, so distraught that he didn’t seem to care his mother could hear every word. “Somewhere out of the country. Puerto Rico, maybe, I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“And who recommended these avocado orchards?” Mitch asked.
“I don’t know. Some investment guy our manager knows. All I know is that avocados were supposed to be very big.”
“Really, Ian? Really?” Mitch said, with an edge of skepticism that clearly cut through Ian’s thin skin.
Melissa was on it like a hawk. “We’re not all CEOs, Mitch,” she shot back. “And you’ve made a few mistakes of your own with the IRS.”
“Honest mistakes,” Mitch said, defensively.
“This was an honest mistake!” Ian nearly shouted. “We were all told it was a legitimate tax shelter.”
Andy could tell her youngest child was dazed and confused by how to handle the situation and would like nothing better than go in his room, close the door and practice, over and over, the fingering to ‘Black Bird.’ But the days of running away from the chaos surrounding him had long passed. She began to mull over what she might say to comfort Ian, but what the hell did she know about avocados?
Then Mitch, who was never one to mull over anything, said something that amazed even his mother. “Well, congratulations, bro. You’ve made it!”
Everyone, including Harley, looked at her eldest, who had finished his dinner and was rolling an unlit cigar in his fingers.
“What do you mean, I’ve made it?” Ian asked, perturbed.
“Unless you’re a poor starving artist or a drug dealer, being audited is part of the American experience,” Mitch pointed out. “You’re grown up now, Ian. Even Uncle Sam thinks you’re important. It’s part of life. Part of a successful business life. Be proud of yourself.”
Ian considered this, as Mitch continued to roll his cigar. “It’s only money, little bro,” Mitch concluded. “I doubt they’ll put you in jail.”
Melissa, whose hand had been resting on Mitch’s arm, dug her black enameled nails into his skin. “No one is going to jail, Mitchell!” she hissed. “It’s an IRS audit, for god’s sake.”
The waiter arrived unannounced with the bill and glanced subtly around the table. “That goes to him,” the Impresario instructed, taking the bill and handing it to Mitch. “Because paying the bill means never having to say you’re sorry.”