Chapter One

The Tolling of Mercedes Bell

April 1982

A Kind of Tarot

Dozens of index cards were laid out like a board game on the dining room table. The old manual typewriter and a ream of good bond paper were the tools of survival in her now-desperate campaign to find a job. Copies of letters already mailed sat in a thick stack next to the cards on which she’d written the name and address of every law firm within driving distance. Hundreds of calls and letters later, she was down to the end.

It has to be one of these, thought Mercedes Bell, arranging the last cards in front of her like some obfuscated Tarot reading. She stared out the open windows onto her neighbor’s lawn and felt a hollow ache inside. Of all the many she had tried, there were only four law offices left to pursue for the elusive paralegal job.

Pull yourself together. It will be one of these four, she thought. She typed the letter she knew by heart, introducing herself, enclosing a résumé. There was something wonderfully satisfying about pounding out a letter. The table shook a little, the wood floor vibrated beneath her bare feet, and at the end of each line—ding!—the carriage return. When she’d finished the letters, she sealed them and held them in her hand for a moment. Please just give me a chance.

She walked into the kitchen, stomach growling from not having eaten in hours, took an apple from the bowl and went out back. The red paint peeling off the porch where she stood felt crinkly under her toes. She looked at the yard tools leaning against the house where Eddy had left them, and then his work gloves on top of the wood pile. Strange, but she half expected him to come through the gate. In the weeks since his death, anxiety, sorrow and anger had cloaked and choked her.

A soft breeze brought the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine and moved her long, curly hair. She had hardly noticed the onset of spring. The plum trees budded and blossomed as though in a movie. The mourning doves returned to the bower outside the bedroom window where she’d lain sleepless, often holding Germaine. The daylight increased in length each day, a march of light toward some ineluctable end. The money was running out, and the full weight of what had happened lay heavily upon her.

Before Eddy died, she’d enrolled in a training program for paralegal work, a promising new career that was sprouting up all over the country. She wanted to have a means of support whenever the inevitable split-up occurred. She knew she couldn’t endure his abuse indefinitely, and it would only be a matter of time until Germaine became his next target.

But here she was, only a few weeks from finishing the course, and Eddy had trumped her one last time. There was no time to study anymore. Her survival and her daughter’s depended on finding work now. Mercedes relished the idea of breaking into something so new she could be one of the first—if she could just get her foot in the door.

Unfortunately, there were no paralegal job openings listed in any of the papers, and she had no paralegal certificate. But at least she’d have the jump on her classmates, who wouldn’t be seeking jobs for another month. She smiled at the irony of that. She was hundreds of rejections ahead of them.

Germaine was the one saving grace of the whole fiasco. How such a sweet child could have been sired by the likes of Eddy was proof that anything was possible. How Mercedes could have been so blind about him, despite the ceaseless haranguing of her parents and the warnings of friends, was the haunting question of the decade. Your gloves can just stay on the damn wood pile. They can lie there and rot, she thought angrily.

Germaine would be home from school soon. She threw the apple core hard against the fence and went back into the kitchen. While she was making a snack for her little girl, she flicked on the radio and listened to the Journey song that was playing.

The back gate creaked, and Germaine climbed the wooden stairs to the kitchen. Her seven-year-old face was somber, with a pensive expression in her grey eyes. She made a beeline for her mother, put her arms around her waist and pressed against her pink tee shirt, holding on tightly with eyes closed. Mercedes stroked her silky head, smoothed the Peter Pan collar on the flowered cotton dress, ran her hand down her little back and felt her shoulder blades, thin and sharp. Mercedes knelt down and hugged her heart to heart.

“How was school today?”

“Okay,” Germaine sighed with resignation. Her whimsy had departed the day she learned her father had died. Many things that had been interesting, if not fun, were now a struggle. She was all business and rarely smiled.

“But Miss Prentiss gave me a harder book to read.” She wriggled out of her backpack, unzipped it and pulled out a new book.

Mercedes looked at the book and nodded. Since age three, the child had been an insatiable bookworm. Following Eddy’s death, reading was her primary escape.

“That looks very intriguing. You’re a great reader and I’m proud of you, Sweetness,” she said. “But we have a mysterious mission ahead of us before you start that book.”

Germaine’s eyes shone. Then she spied the peanut butter and graham crackers and put the book down.

☼☼☼

A short while later, they exited their battered blue VW near the newsstand on Grand Avenue in Oakland and walked to the racks of newspapers. Mercedes read the headlines. The British and the Argentines were at each other’s throats in the Falklands; an unidentified sexually transmitted disease was causing many deaths. She pulled two legal newspapers off the rack and flipped to the job listings. Nothing for paralegals. She bought the evening Tribune, paid the wizened shopkeeper and turned around to find Germaine.

The girl’s attention was fixed on a friendly-looking black retriever with a red kerchief around his neck, who was waiting for his master to emerge from the café next door. She took a step toward the dog, but then hesitated and looked for her mother.

Mercedes came over to her with the newspaper under one arm and pulled four envelopes out of her purse. “Put your special mojo on those,” she said, “because one of them is going to hire your mama.”

Germaine knew what they were without asking and received them with both hands. Mercedes pulled down the handle of the corner mailbox and Germaine dropped the envelopes in, peering down the slot as they disappeared.

☼☼☼

That evening they sat on the sofa in the living room near the cold hearth. Germaine read aloud from her new book while Mercedes looked through the classifieds for housing and jobs, occasionally helping the child sound out a tough word.

Germaine stopped at the end of a sentence. “Why do we have to move, Mama?” she asked plaintively. “I like it here.” She looked at the dark print curtains Mercedes had made, the colorful pillows on the couch and the Cézanne print on the wall. The house they rented was one of many fine middleclass homes in the well-groomed district of Piedmont.

“I know you do. So do I. But we can’t afford to stay here now that Daddy’s gone. We’ll find a nice little place for just the two of us. I’ll get a job and it’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

Even as she said it, she wondered: Can anything be fine when your father has died and you have to move away from all your friends?

☼☼☼

Mercedes lay in bed studying the patterns the moonlight projected on her bedroom walls: shapes of branches and leaves swaying slowly in the breeze, the distorted outlines of windowpanes bent into trapezoids, the angle of the eaves. The branches seemed to be conversing with each other in an undulating language of whispers and gestures. There was no sound of traffic—only the rustling leaves, a dog barking in the distance, an owl hooting for its mate.

What will the solution look like? A phone call? An affordable place to live suddenly available? She’d done the arithmetic a million times. The money she had was barely enough for a first and last month of very modest rent, with maybe a week’s groceries and gas. If the balance fell any lower, they would have to find a landlord willing to rent to them on faith or they would be out on the street. She dared not ask her parents for help. That would come with many strings attached and invite further interference, which she had already sloughed off once before when she ran away with Eddy. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Eddy, Eddy, why did you have to be so impossible? She was sick of thinking about it, but she could scarcely think of anything else. The details of his death were on a looping tape that played endlessly in her thoughts. She saw the mischievous gleam in his pale green eyes, his dark tan and long ponytail. She recalled his hilarious banter, his brash tales and ability to charm. Then came his kisses, his confidences and his promises. Her heart pounded and ached.

Long after those early days another Eddy emerged—the bad genie in the liquor bottle. The drunken one who bragged, picked fights and criticized her relentlessly. As soon as Germaine was born, he seemed to think he could have his way not only with his wife but also with any other woman he fancied. The two faces of Eddy, both of them now dead. He had been reckless with her heart, reckless with their finances and especially reckless behind the wheel.

Eight weeks earlier, on another full-moon night, the doorbell had rung at 3:45 a.m. She felt sick, remembering it all again. She had looked at the alarm clock and thought Eddy must be too plastered to get his key in the lock. Then she had padded downstairs in her bathrobe, switched on the porch light and looked through the peephole to see two police officers. Was she the wife of Edward Lewellyn? They were very sorry to inform her that there had been an accident. Her husband’s car had collided with a telephone pole at high speed. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and died instantly.

To top it off, he had left no life insurance and a mountain of debt. She turned and put a pillow over her eyes. What would solve this?

The solution will be simple and quiet and will come at the very last possible moment, something inside her seemed to say. Hadn’t that been what Eddy’s death was? An unexpected solution to an impossible situation? Now there could be no more mind games, no more verbal abuse, no more infidelities. She was free of him without a messy divorce, without a custody battle or years of having to share Germaine. What torture that would have been.

Something inside her relaxed with the realization of what she had been spared. She listened to the owl, hooting in the silent night. It was all in her hands, as she had so often wished it would be. She felt grateful for the comfort of her bed, the beauty of the moonlight, and this terrible gift of freedom.

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