Robert Bockstael is a Canadian actor, director, and writer. He has extensive experience performing both on-screen and on-stage, having acted in a variety of movies, television series, and plays. Bockstael has also shared the knowledge of his craft as an instructor for acting courses. He is currently in the process of preparing for future performances of a one-man show, written by Arthur Milner, called ‘Getting to Room Temperature’.
I do not consider myself to be the obsessive type, but I have, I suppose, the capacity for obsession. I can be the proverbial dog with a bone. Though I have difficulty understanding precisely what the phrase means, I have heard it used in similar instances so I thought its use appropriate.
Her name is Alma. That is the name written, faded and frilly, on the back of the photograph I uncovered long ago that led me here. The photograph I hold in my cotton- gloved hand.
I ponder her enigmatic smile, eyes crinkled at the corners, squinting in the sun. Her long slender legs hiding in high-waisted, crisply creased pants and her slight, athletic body in a man’s too large white shirt buttoned up tight at the neck and cuffs. I am certain it is a white shirt, despite it being a black and white photograph. I have a strong feeling, judging from the style, the cut.
And I hate to think of Alma wearing yellow.
I imagine I am able to feel textures through my white gloves, but of course I cannot. It’s a picture for crying out loud!
I also imagine I am the one holding the camera that took the photograph so long ago. A Brownie, perhaps. Feeling the wind press on my cheek as I watch her short neatly parted hair being ruffled by that same breeze.
I say, “You feel that Alma?”
She raises her hand to shade her eyes, looks at me, and smiles. I take the picture, capturing that moment.
She says, “There’s clover on the wind.”
Turning her face to the breeze, she breathes deeply. Her hands drop into her pockets like Katherine Hepburn. Alma’s face is too narrow to be a movie star’s, her nose too Roman, but her posture – her posture could reanimate a dead man.
I want to inhabit this moment, share it with her. Alma’s face warmed by the sun and the smell of clover on the wind. I bring the picture close to smell the clover.
Instead I smell cotton gloves and stale coffee. My fantasy shattered by crap-happy reality.
Stale coffee, sheesh.
My eyes open to overhead fluorescents and our cramped, glassed-in workroom. Organized on my side, not so on Tina’s. She’s not in this morning, but she always leaves the Mr. Coffee on all day. She’ll brew up a pot – which I didn’t mind at first because when it’s fresh I actually enjoy the aroma – but then she lets it sit, forgotten, getting stronger and stronger and stinky sock smelling. Today I have done the same, as it suits my purposes nicely. I clean two mugs and prepare them carefully – one for me and a special one for the guest of honour. Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
Did I say that out loud? I must be careful, today of all days. I’ve been planning this a good while, mustn’t slip up by talking to myself. Twitch. I massage my cheek with a fingertip high under my left eye.
I look at my prized photograph one last time before slipping it into its colour-coded plastic case and secured drawer. It is, after all, my only picture of Alma.
It is also bait, this singular photograph, drawing my guest out from his hidey-hole. Time to prepare. Ten minutes before he arrives.
I unfold a crisp white lab coat from my briefcase. I love snapping open the clasps, popping them up together. Sometimes I open them over and over. Now to the washroom – wash hands and face, inspect for irregularities. A fleck of white flake on the left eyebrow – off it comes and down the sink.
Seven minutes remaining.
Pausing as I exit the washroom I count patrons in the library – I am, for the moment at least, a digitization specialist supervising a local history project in a small rural library – of course I am.
There are two patrons seated at computers. Nobody else.
In my short time working here in this remote little town, I have become aware that the Public Library is used predominantly to access the Internet. Ironically, my current work involves the digitization and uploading of materials to the Web that patrons will view on computers not twenty feet from the actual materials.
Odd and sad.
Back in my glass-walled room, I consult my Timex. Four minutes.
I promise myself time and time again that I’ll not tidy Tina’s side of the room, but I do it just the same. She has been so good to me, so generous with her time. The two of us lunching here, at our desks, conversing like normal people.
But now, especially now, I must keep things professional.
I am expecting an important guest, after all. A man I have spent time and energy convincing that coming to see me is not just a good idea, but also his idea.
I straighten out Tina’s workspace – line up her pens, square up her files and arrange our equipment by size and shape. The common area of the worktable positively bristles with scanners, photographic and recording devices. The tools of the digitizer’s trade.
Placing Tina’s chair precisely where I need my guest to sit, I take quick steps back to my side of the table and sit down, aware that my guest may arrive early for a peek to size me up, preparing himself in the myriad ways we all prepare ourselves before going into an unknown situation. Sitting at my desk calmly and exuding all semblance of normalcy, he will arrive to see nothing but a pleasant-looking man in his late forties working industriously. Me, normal me.
Normal, save for the intermittent twitch below the left eye.
What he won’t see is the tiny digital video recorder cleverly concealed at the base of my work lamp aimed directly at him.
A shadow fills the glass doorway. I see it peripherally but do not acknowledge it, wishing to appear immersed in my work.
A tap on the glass brings my head up, my face now carefully arranged into a look of puzzlement at the unexpected disturbance, an appropriate frown – slight, so it won’t be mistaken for anger but rather interpreted as mild confusion. And now here’s a pleasant grin, morphing seamlessly into a salutary smile.
A one-hand-up gesture with index finger extended to indicate, ‘I’ll just be a moment’. Returning my attention to my computer screen, I check the Audio and Video Recording icon for the thirteenth and fourteenth time and, satisfied, I stand up, smooth my lab coat and walk to the door with plenty of agreeable body language, which, given my level of excitement, is not as difficult a feat as I often find it to be.
Ready or not, Gerry, here I come.
Opening the door, I speak. “Mr. Thompson, I presume.” It is a thumping old chestnut of a lead-in line, and always confounding to witness its effect on people. What mysterious power does this phrase have? Does the person imagine I crossed Darkest Africa to find him?
Sure enough, I am rewarded with a smile. Just lips, no teeth. Oh well, it’s a start.
“Gerry Thompson,” he says, extending his hand for the customary handshake I so detest and always avoid.
Holding up my splayed, gloved hands in mock surrender I say, “Sorry Mr. Thompson.”
“Gerry,” I perform a shrug. “Sterile gloves. Protocol.”
I look pointedly at my white gloves. He makes an ‘O’ with his mouth, raises his eyebrows and, turning his mouth into a downward horseshoe, nods gravely to indicate he understands.
Like he does.
I say -“I’m Bennett Davis, we spoke on the telephone. So glad you could come.” I want to say finally, but I do not.
“People call you Ben?”
“I discourage the practice by whatever means at my disposal.” I am rewarded with a deep frown.
I should stop there but perversely I don’t. I show him my teeth now. My perfect teeth.
“It’s Bennett, two n’s, two t’s.”
“Bennett it is then.”
“Coffee?” I ask, knowing full well he is a dedicated coffee drinker from one of our ‘just being friendly over the phone’ moments.
“Absolutely,” he says, rubbing his hands together as if he is cold. It is a warm spring day and he’s wearing a jacket – how can he be cold? Or why would he pretend to be? Shame I can’t ask.
“Cream and sugar, correct?”
“Very good,” he says.
During our last phone conversation, I had mentioned -deliberately of course – that Tina kept ‘our lab’ smelling of strong coffee. He had exclaimed that he enjoyed his coffee like his women, “White, hot, strong and sweet! I ought to meet this Tina of yours!” When I assured him Tina was not mine, he laughed. “No?” And laughed some more. Then, thinking it would behoove me to join in, I did. We laughed together, then, like old pals.
My twitch pays me a quick visit and scuttles off.
I pour the coffee into the prepared mugs and make a show of handing him his before settling down in my chair.
“How was the drive, Gerry?” I ask.
“Fine.” He raises his mug and inhales the steam. “Mmm, just like I like my women…” “I remember,” I say, not needing to hear the remainder of that particular phrase again.
He smiles and I see he has square teeth. Big square Chiclet teeth with dark spaces in between. If I were prone to fear, those teeth would scare me.
Pulling my gloves tight, I take obvious note of the time on my Timex – signaling I am ready to get down to business.
“Okay,” he says, catching on, leaning forward in Tina’s chair, “I brought the thing I told you about on the phone.”
“You have it with you?” Stupid response! But wait, people respond stupidly to things when they are excited. Whew.
He looks at me from under arched eyebrows. There are so many ways to interpret that expression that I wait and see rather than risk being wrong. He reaches deep inside his windbreaker- which sports an embroidered gold star flying upwards with a sparkly trail, undoubtedly of Chinese manufacture with an absurd brand name like, ‘Gold Star Fly Away Forever Happy Clothing Company’ – and pulls out an envelope. He puts it on the table and, squaring it up, places both hands, palm down on top of it. Protecting it. Yes, definitely protecting it.
He half-glances over his shoulder, then back at me. Quizzically?
He says, “I wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand.”
I construct a reassuring expression, paste it on my face – a tight fit – and say, “It’s just history. Family history.”
“Yeah, but like I said over the phone, it’s not for, you know, public whatever.”
He’s nervous – bolster him!
“Public consumption?” I say, “Heavens no.”
“It won’t go onto the Internet or anything?”
“Absolutely not, you have my word. Discretion is paramount. This, we already agreed, yes?”
Gerry is relieved. I can tell by his face, his body and especially his hands. All relax. He takes a deep breath, expels it, and pushes the envelope across to me with a decisiveness that denotes finality.
I almost shout, “Way to go Gerry! I knew you could do it!” But I do not. What kind of person would?
I do not touch the envelope, as much as I yearn to. Not yet, not yet.
Gerry toasts me with his coffee mug and waits for me to respond in kind. I do so. We sip our coffee. His, a trifle stronger than mine.
“You agreed to tell me your family story, Gerry. I want to hear it before I open the envelope. I need to deepen my understanding, broaden my perspective, and fill in the blanks. Then I’ll put the whole thing to bed, as promised. Close the book and move on to my next project.”
“No notes or anything, right? No record of this meeting?”
“Correct.” I pluck a white envelope from my desk drawer and slide it across to him. It is bulging with bills. Gerry, like a magician, makes it disappear into his ‘Gold Star Fly Away Forever Happy’ jacket.
“It’s all there,” I say, “like we agreed.”
Gerry nods, takes a slurp of coffee. “Spring of 1960, my father, Jamison Thompson, lost his sister Alma in a swimming accident. Shortly after that, his mother and father died in a house fire.”
I say, “Let’s start with his sister – your aunt.”
“Alma,” he says. “Alma Thompson.” My turn to nod. And twitch.
“Grandpa ran a sawmill on a few hundred acres. Grandma Thompson was bed-ridden; some say she never left the house after Alma was born.”
I interrupt. “Excuse me, but I need to understand something.”
“If Grandpa was sawing at his sawmill, and Grandma was an invalid, who was taking care of little Alma and Jamison?”
Gerry hesitates. Just a half second, but he hesitates.
“More than one?” I am careful with my tone. Tone, sometimes, is all.
Ears. They were foreign. Scandinavian or Belgian. They came to our country for a better life. They never lasted long.” Twitch. “Because they’d meet someone, or get pregnant or run away.”
Or not, I think. Aloud I say, “Go on.”
“Dad and Aunt Alma grew up inseparable. From the time they were little to the day she disappeared.”
“And when was that?” I ask.
“Not long before Dad and Caroline got married.”
“Caroline being your mother.” I know, but say it anyway.
“Yeah, Caroline. Corpulent Caroline they called her on account of her weight. Kids made fun of her but Dad saw something in her.”
“So Alma disappears, then he and Caroline get married.”
Gerry’s head tilts sideways. “They’d been engaged for a year. They even used to double date with Alma.”
“Who did Alma take?” I ask.
“On the double dates.”
Gerry smiles and waves his hand in the air as if shooing away a fly. I look around. No fly.
“It was just the three of them. They called themselves the Three Musketeers.”
I indicate the manila envelope on the table in front of me. “And the only picture of the three of them together is in here?”
Calling to me quietly, insistent. Taunting my twitch.
“Yup,” he says.
I smile and sip my coffee. “Alma’s disappearance,” I prompt him.
He looks at me. I look back at him. We look at each other.
“It was spring,” he says and drains his cup. “May, 1960. Dad and Caroline had announced their engagement and everything was set for a summer wedding. The Three Musketeers went everywhere together – dances, movies, parties, you name it. When the weather finally warmed they went on a picnic with a group of friends to Eagle Lake. They spent the morning climbing around the cliffs, exploring, playing games. After lunch, Dad dared anyone to jump down into the water. The cliffs have to be three or four stories up and the water below is about forty feet deep. Caroline said no way. She wouldn’t even be seen in a bathing suit. Not like now. Of course Alma said she’d go, and she and Dad grabbed hands and jumped. Story goes they didn’t make a sound all the way down. You’d expect them to scream, but no, they went down quietly. There was a big splash. Then, a few seconds later Dad’s head broke the surface. He waved up at everyone. People were yelling down at him – ‘Where’s Alma?’ But he just waved, and swam for shore, which was hidden under the rock overhang. Then he reappeared and started swimming around frantically – calling Alma’s name. A couple of guys jumped down into the water and looked too. The girls ran for help. Eventually there were boats and divers and everything but Auntie Alma was never found.”
“Tell me,” I say. “When did Caroline start losing weight?”
He squints at me. “Caroline? What does that have to do with anything?”
“I saw a picture of her at your father’s funeral. It was in the local paper. She’s rail thin.”
“Oh, yeah, that picture caused a stir at home I’ll tell you. Yeah, she’s been thin since they eloped.” He shakes his head ruefully. I should work on my rueful expressions. I make a mental note to do so. Wait, where was I?
“She was sure pissed at the newspaper. She was going to sue.” “It must’ve been intrusive,” I purr. Twitch.
“Damn straight. She likes her privacy.”
“And she’s entitled to it like everyone else, yes?”
His eyes light up. “That’s exactly what Mom says! Privacy is huge at our house.”
And he stops dead. His mouth opens and closes. “What I mean is their house.” And he looks at me like a kid who just got caught doing something he shouldn’t do.
I let him hang. For longer than is polite. And then some more just for effect. Now soothe.
“It’s okay, Gerry. I’m not here to judge. So. Caroline, I mean, your Mom, went on a diet around the time of the wedding, er, elopement?”
“Um, yeah.” He frowns and clears his throat. “Dad was despondent and losing interest, so she went on a crash diet.”
“What do you mean, then what? Then nothing.”
“Did she do anything else? Like maybe colour her hair? Get a nose job? Start dressing differently? Like a Lab Assistant?”
Gerry looks at me strangely. Do I have something on my teeth?
“Nothing,” he says carefully. “Why are you asking these questions? Aren’t we were here to talk about Auntie Alma – and the photograph?” Gerry says this slowly. Carefully. Liquidy. Liquidy?
“I want all of the background, I told you. Um, Caroline loses a ton, yes? Then Granma and Grandpa die in a fire?” Crispy critters!
“The power was out. They used a Coleman stove in the house and got carbon monoxide poisoning.”
“While Caroline and your Dad were away.” Twitch.
“Yes, on their honeymoon. In the city.”
“Only two hours away,” I say in an echoey voice I had not planned to use but oddly serving the purpose by lending a resonant gravitas. So I try it again. “Two hours a-where. A-whence.”
I am confused now, but alert. A-lert.
I rally my considerable abilities, my strong mind, my iron will and say, “Killers. All of you.”
Gerry nods, sagely. “Yup, killers. Oooh, you got us.” He twiddles his fingers in the air.
“Daddy and Alma killed Caroline a couple of days after faking Alma’s death at the cliffs. Alma became Caroline – minus a hundred pounds. People really do fall for almost anything, huh Benny? But seriously, the lab coat? Gimme a break.” He laughs now, so do I. What fun!
Gerry says, “Alma redid herself down in the city – but you knew that already, didn’t you? Then one night they drive back home to do Grandpa and Granma with the Coleman stove. When the smoke cleared – so to speak – they owned a farm, a sawmill and were ready to settle down to a quiet life as Caroline and Jamison Thompson with little Gerry on the way.”
Gerry smiles a lovely smile and warmth wafts my way. I bathe in it. I love this guy.
He says, “How ‘bout you give me that picture of Alma you have hidden in your drawer.”
I comply happily, smiling at her fondly as I give her to him. ‘She is so lovely’, I want to say, but I am speechless. I work to pick up the envelope Gerry brought me – the reason for the meeting – but it is not as easy as it should be.
“Can you manage Benny?”
I nod vigorously as I fumble the picture from the manila envelope with sausage fingers.
While I work, Gerry continues. “Daddy’s gone now – we had to do him, Alma and me.He was getting dementia and babbling. It was actually kinda fun – wish you’d been there. Well, soon enough, eh Benny?” Gerry winks. “It was a bit tricky for Alma – I should say, Mommy. Doesn’t get around as easy as she used to. Still looks good though, don’t you think?”
I look at the photograph that Gerry brought to me. The one I paid for with my own money.
My voice wants to cry out, ‘No!’ But all that escapes is a long, low moan. I am holding a printed selfie in my white-gloved hand. Gerry has taken it with one arm extending the camera so he is in the shot. He is mid-flourish with his other hand, like a magician, gesturing to a thin, well-preserved woman in her late seventies, dressed in a man’s white shirt, pleated pants, and short hair. Her face is too thin to be a movie star’s. Her hands are in her pockets and her pose – her pose could make a mute man speak. At her feet is a shallow grave containing Tina, wide-eyed and trussed-up. Tina.
Tina, who I had told to take the day off so I could pursue my investigation, so I could find Alma. But Alma found Tina first. Tina who had taught me how to pose as a digitization specialist – whatever that is! Our lunches together – we talked about ourselves! Poor Tina, they got you to tell them what you knew about me. About me being unofficial. On my own. A rogue. Untraceable.
I’m fading. My face will no longer do what I tell it to do. The Rohipnol I put in Gerry’s coffee – when did he switch cups? Who knew he was an actual magician. I applaud him with my fat ham hands. He takes a modest bow, a glittery trail following him like the star on his jacket – Let’s Fly Away! Forever Happy!
I can only watch as he wipes down the table, the chair, and the coffee mug and puts my computer and voice recorder in my briefcase. Snap snap. I want to ask him to ‘Do it again, do it again!’ but I can no longer make any sound at all, so I just smile.
He walks me, arm in arm, like old pals, out to his car. We drive, windows open, deep into the country on this lovely, sunny summer day.
‘Alma, I can hardly wait,’ I want to say. Gerry laughs. I smile, the wind in my hair, as we drive down the long farm road to Eagle Lake, the abandoned sawmill and Alma.
I smell clover on the wind.