Keeping Them Happy Ch. 19

This is the final chapter of this novel. To return to Chapter 1, where Mason first meets Officer Borst, click here, which also will take you to a list of links to any other chapter.

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Mason awakened with a headache and a stiff arm. His mouth had the feel and taste of wet cardboard, which was from the excessive amount of beer that he and George had consumed after they had unplugged the toaster and re-set the circuit breaker. It was a Saturday.

Mason stared at his pillow and listened to George banging around in the kitchen on the pretense of making breakfast. Mason had no desire to get up. He did not want to deal with the broken windows. He did not want to answer George’s questions. He did not want to begin another day of waiting for Gail to phone with an opportunity for them to attempt a reconciliation. He tried to think of something that he did want to do, something that might provide a pleasant distraction, but the only idea that had any appeal was to go to his office, lock the door behind him, leave the answering machine on, and try to lose himself in some of the legal work on which he was again behind. It occurred to him that he was in a rut. He imagined himself as an old man, dropping dead at his desk while the answering machine went on taking calls.

The smell of coffee finally coaxed him out of bed. He put on a robe and slippers and went into the kitchen. His gun and the shell casings from the toaster were on a plate on the table. George was making something that vaguely resembled french toast. Mason picked up the gun, carefully avoiding the trigger, and examined it thoroughly. He wished that there was some way to start yesterday over. The gun reeked of death, and he felt like a fool for not having noticed that last night. There had not been many things that he had ever regretted, believing that it was illogical to entertain desires that something already done could be undone, but he regretted the shoot-out with Borst.

“You want some?” George asked, pointing to the frying pan.

“What have I got to lose?”

Mason put the gun back on the plate and shoved it away.

“I found it when I went to make coffee,” George said.

“Jesus Christ,” Mason muttered, again recalling the desperate look on Borst’s face just before Mason fired at him.

George put their breakfasts on the table. They ate in silence, George hungrily, Mason like a broken robot, moving slowly, not tasting the food. When they had finished, Mason asked, “You want to hear about it?”

“Looks like it ought to be a good story.”

So Mason told George what had happened. George liked the sound of it.

“You think I ought to get a gun too, in case the guy comes back?”

“He won’t be back.”

George cleared away their dishes and brought more coffee. “It’s women, man. You think about it for a second, all of man’s problems start with women.”

“Huh?” Mason said.

“Like this deal last night really started with that chick that you screwed here the other night, the first time the police were here.”

Assessing his feelings toward Elaine Bettendorff, Mason was surprised that he felt no bitterness toward her. She had been interesting and obscure at a time when everyone else seemed boringly predictable. And she had been the most sexual creature he had ever encountered. He believed that she really had enjoyed sex with him and was not just doing it as a favor to Borst.

“I liked her,” he said.

“You were supposed to. Wasn’t that the point?”

“I think she liked me too.”

“You saw that she was weird and unhappy and you figured you were gonna be the one guy who could figure her out and satisfy her. It was a challenge. And – I hesitate to say it – it was seasoned with a big dose of vanity.”

“You think so?” Mason asked, surprised that George was being so analytical and even a bit critical.

“Shit, I don’t know. It’s always something that’s about that insubstantial. Me, I just try to go for a pretty face and loose hips.”

“Bullshit. What’d you do last night before you showed up here?”

George squinted with the sting of the memory. “Nothing much. I tried again to see Tina.”

“You mean you didn’t succeed.”

“No, I didn’t. Not exactly anyway. I had a couple drinks and then went over to her apartment. I thought it’d be kind of nice to surprise her. You know?”

“On a Friday night? Not the smartest move.”

“Well, there was a guy there, sort of lurking around behind her when she answered the door. She wouldn’t step out or invite me in, so I didn’t get much of a look at him. Can you believe that? She was already fooling around with another guy?”

“Yeah, that sure is hard to believe, George,” Mason said without conviction. “Typical woman.” His added comment was offered only out of sympathy for George.

“I told her – loud enough for him to hear – that I was gonna chain the fucker to the back of the Coupe de Ville and drag him down the freeway. I was kinda worked up.”

“Yeah. I can imagine.”

“She slammed the door and I went back to my car and tied the tire chains to my back bumper. Then I drove back and forth on the street out in front for awhile, so he could hear the chains rattling and realize how serious I was. I saw someone peek through the curtain once, but nothing else happened. I got bored after awhile, so I put the chains away and went to a bar I knew, where I scored some really good weed.” He smiled at the recollection of the marijuana. “I was still feeling it when I showed up here. I gotta admit I was kind of spooked by the presence of law enforcement. You can imagine.”

“But if I recall, you never let yourself get involved with women, right? Which I suppose would include Tina.”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

After he had gotten dressed, Mason called a glass company about the windows. Then he got a broom and dust pan and swept up the debris and rearranged his remaining beer steins to eliminate the empty spaces. When the house had been restored sufficiently he did what had seemed appealing to him earlier. He went to his office.

With the joy of a man who has found a cure, he sat in his chair. This is where it all starts and stops, he thought. This is where I am in control, where the only changes that occur are ones that I dictate. This is the one certain circumstance of stability in my life.

There on a shelf was his old copy of “Black’s Law Dictionary” that he had gotten when in law school. Behind him on an old credenza (a piece of furniture he’d gotten at an estate sale) was a clock that was shaped like a small vault. It had not worked in at least five years, but he had gotten it from an early job he’d taken with a bank. Jammed onto the sparse office walls were original art works that he had purchased himself, one of them from a girl he had loved decades earlier and who had been killed in a car wreck.

There was order in this room and personal identity of a kind he wished existed in the other corners of his life. If only Gail would not be disagreeable and stubborn and possessive, if only Elaine had not deceived him, if only Borst did not try to kill him, if only George were not inclined toward self-destructive acts – if only, if only…

He was sick of everything outside this room, he realized. The achievement of peace and tranquility had never been so tantalizing. But there seemed to be a demon conspiracy to deprive him of those things. It was a cruel twist that made things at the same time desirable and unattainable. He supposed that the fuel that made men go was a persistent need to achieve, but to attain something was to lose interest, to have nothing left to strive for. It was the chase that mattered, not the attainment. But it shouldn’t be that way. He resented not being able to understand why it was.

Mason’s answering machine had been flashing since he had come in. He punched a button and listened to the tape rewind. The counter indicated only one message. He considered erasing it without without listening. If it was Gail, he wasn’t sure how he might react to the sound of her voice. If it was not her, he didn’t want to know she had not called.

“Fuck it,” he muttered to himself.

He poked another button on the machine and the message played. It was Jane. She didn’t say what she wanted. She never did because it was always the same, money. She said she was going to stop in to see him. He erased the message. He scouted through his desk drawers until he found the old hotel doorknob sign that said “Do Not Disturb.” He figured she would not show herself on a Saturday, since the building was locked and she could assume he would not usually be there anyway. He left the sign positioned prominently on his desk so he would remember to hang it on the door beginning Monday.

He opened a file and looked at his notes from a client who wanted to sue a charter airline for a badly conducted tour of the Holy Land. There was no good cause of action, but Mason knew that if he filed the complaint in federal court the attorney for the airline would advise them to negotiate a settlement in the range of about $500, because fighting the lawsuit would cost the company more than that. Mason would get $150, the court would get about $50, and the plaintiff would get about $300, which amounted to a full refund on her tour.

For almost a quarter hour, without lifting a pen, Mason stared at the notes he had made in the file. He concluded that this was what his law practice had been reduced to. Years of training and experience in order to collect a small sum on a case that was nearly without legal merit. Game playing. Nothing about justice or righting wrongs, compensating the victimized, or penalizing the guilty. Ultimately it was maneuvering. Still, he recognized that even the most deserving complaint could not prevail without someone who knew how to maneuver. And that was order of the kind he admired, even if it served only itself. The focus of law had become so narrow that its primary function now appeared to be the renewal and perpetuation of its own existence, not unlike the focus of Mason’s own personal life.

The naive, the untrained, the ignorant, the poor, they all saw how the system worked – even when a lawyer with a college education and years in practice refused to accept the same view. No wonder most people hated lawyers.

Mason felt disoriented, like a priest who feared he was losing his faith. What’s life like on the other side? Do I have an obligation to myself to find out or should I regard doubt and curiosity as frivolous distractions and attempt to stabilize my life by reasserting the old ways, the ways I know best and that for me provide the most certain path? It was the kind of dilemma that he usually treated with avoidance.

The phone rang. Mason switched the machine on and left the volume up so he could hear the caller’s message. First his own voice answering and then a brief dehumanizing tone signaling that the machine would record whatever the caller wanted to say.

“It’s just George, Mason. I thought I might catch you there but I’ll probably talk to you later. I got a date with a girl tonight who’s got a friend. No big deal, but it beats self-abuse. Bye.”

Mason let George hang up without interrupting the call. It would have been indiscreet to reveal that he had been listening to someone who thought that he was talking only to a machine. Besides, Mason didn’t want to have to make another decision at the moment.

He closed the file that he had intended to work on. He was not going to be able to concentrate enough to be able to do good work. And George’s call gave him something else to think about. He did not feel like going out that night. He knew that George understood that, and yet – maybe for that very reason – George was trying to nudge him out of his shell. It was curious that someone as elemental as George could at times be relatively sensitive. He had lined up a girl and made the offer to Mason, but he also had made it easy to decline.

For longer than anyone else in Mason’s life, George had filled that role, as Mason in turn filled it for George. For the most part they ignored each other, they had different life styles, they pursued different women. And yet when one of them discovered that the other was floundering, there was no criticism, no suggestions, only an offer of help that was even disguised to avoid any implied judgment that help might be needed. They were like two military veterans who had been bonded not just by shared experiences in a battle zone but by the unspoken realization that what could happen to one could happen with equal force to the other.

Perhaps he had not valued that enough. At least he had not thought about it much. But what was the point of thinking about it? That might only make him self-conscious and awkward in dealing with George, like someone trying to figure out what his feet were doing when he was walking. It was a natural thing, his relationship with George. To recognize that was alright, but to admire it or otherwise expose it would be to risk destroying it.

When Mason thought about Gail he could not escape the conclusion that she was done with him. He had wanted her to become something alien to herself. The very qualities another man might admire, her availability and determination, were only a threat to him. There had been enough about her that he had loved to cause him to feel grief at the loss, but he concluded it had been inevitable, even if he had been slow to recognize it. If one can be unfair by avoiding the truth, it had been unfair of him to hang onto her with the expectation that she would provide what he probably sought most from any woman at that stage of his life – admiration, support, self-denial, forgiveness. Ultimately he knew he had expected too much. He felt the familiar pangs of guilt but quieted them without much effort. There was no point in feeling guilty about something that he could not or would not change. To genuinely acknowledge that his life was the way it was not because he tolerated it but because he had helped create it, was to deny himself the self-indulgence of feeling guilty. In a way, guilt was shaping his future, at the same time creating a consuming hunger for the missing elements. He had liked feeling guilty and assumed that he had unconsciously created the circumstances for it at times. If that made no sense, so what.

What would become of him? Life around him would go on, probably much as it had before. If he were lucky, he would grow old and die. If he were unlucky he might die sooner and miss out on some experiences. Whatever it was that he had spent his life looking for – something so big, so significant that it would consume him with change – was not going to happen. He had put off commitments with the expectation that he would be excluding better possibilities that might occur later. He had continued on that course until evasion had become his life. And now he was in his forties, twice divorced, a promiscuous lover who was on the hit list of a deranged police officer. He was regarded as an easy mark by Jane, and discarded finally by Gail.

Mason pulled open his desk drawer and searched for a particular business card, one of his own, one with a note written on the back. He poked among faded pieces of paper, dried up ball point pens, rotted rubber bands and bent paper clips. It was still there, his business card, under all the other forgotten things, where he had consciously hidden it from himself right after she had given it to him. He took it out without bothering to close the drawer. He held it in both hands and turned it over to read where she had written her name, Elaine Bettendorff, and her phone number.

He nodded to himself, alone in his office, with the realization that this card must have been what brought him to this moment. He studied the handwriting, ran his fingertip over it, trying to catch some essence of the woman who had written it. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to hold her, to make love to her. He wanted her to know that even though she had betrayed him, they had something apart from that, something so strong that the betrayal became proof of their bond, which he realized may have been nothing more than the realization that they were equally condemned.

He cleared a space on the desk and set the card down with her name and phone number facing up toward him. For awhile he gazed off beyond the walls of his tiny office. When he looked back down at the card it was as though he had expected that small insubstantial note to have gotten tired of waiting and to have departed. It spoke to him. It said, “I’m still here. I’m not going to decide this for you by disappearing.” He picked it up again, ran his fingers along the edges, squeezing the card slightly so that it bulged in and out as though it were breathing. It was foolish to try to call her, he knew that. It was inviting unpleasantness.

But it was futile for him to try to reason himself out of it. He could not rest without having made the effort.

He picked up the phone, shook it back and forth in his hand, feeling the forces pulling it both toward him and back toward its own resting place in his desk drawer. He set it down again. But it was only for a moment. He snatched it back up and dialed the phone number in a near panic, his hand trembling. It rang. The voices inside him beseeched alternately “please be there; please don’t be.” It rang again before someone said “hello.” From that one word he could tell only that it was not Elaine Bettendorff, that it was an older woman. Her mother? He had never thought of her as having parents.

“Is Elaine there?” he asked.

“Who?” It was not her mother. A landlady probably.

“Elaine Bettendorff.”

“Oh, her. No, she moved out. Must have been nearly two months ago.”

But she had given him the card long before that. That was important. He told himself that the information on the card must have been correct when she had given it to him.

“Do you know where she moved to or what her phone number is?” Mason asked.

“Just a minute,” the woman said, and the phone clunked down hard on something.

Mason was conscious of his breath going in and out while he waited. It was the only sound in his office.

The phone rattled again as the woman returned to the line. “Nope. Sorry.”

“Oh,” Mason said, expecting that there must be more. “It’s important that I reach her. It’s about the illness of a close friend. Could be cancer. Do you have any idea of where I might contact her?”

“Oh my, that is sad. But I just can’t be any help. I’m very sorry. She didn’t have much stuff. These apartments are furnished, you know. One morning she was at my door with a suitcase, a cardboard box and I think a couple grocery bags. She gave me the key back. Didn’t give any notice, so I couldn’t refund any of her rent. That’s the rules. They know that when the move in. And she said she understood. Didn’t make no fuss about it. That’s the last I saw of her.”

“Thank you,” Mason said and hung up.

It couldn’t be that simple. She couldn’t just be gone. At least he knew she had stayed in the city after that, because he’d had sex with her at his house shortly before the big shootout with Borst. He couldn’t give up now. He called “directory assistance,” but the male operator said he had no listing for Elaine Bettendorff. He wished Mason a nice day.

The registrar’s office. They would have a file on her. But it was Saturday and there was not likely to be anyone there. He got out his university phone directory, found the number and dialed it. It rang several times before it was picked up.

“Registrar’s office. Sorry we’re closed.” The voice was that of a young female.

“This is Mr. Prewitt. I’m on the faculty. I was going through some student papers here in my office and I find that I need to contact one of my students, but the address and phone number I have are apparently no good anymore. I’d like you to check the student’s record to see if you have anything more current.”

“Gee, I’m just down here today to use the typewriter. I don’t usually get into those files. I’m not sure whether it’s all right for me to do that or not.” Mason thought she was probably a secretary, probably typing an application for a better job.

“Oh, of course it’s all right,” Mason said authoritatively. “We do this all the time.”

“Oh. Well, if you say so. What’s the name?”

“Elaine Bettendorff,” he said and then spelled it in a halting manner, as though he were not familiar with the name.

“Hold on.” she said and went to look for the file. At that point he had won the battle; he didn’t care what the girl in the registrar’s office thought about his possible motives.

When she came back on the line she read him the same phone number that he had already tried. “No, that’s the old one,” he said, starting to sound impatient. “Isn’t there anything more recent?”

“That’s it, Mr. Prewitt. That’s all we’ve got in her file. Students move all the time without letting us know.”

“Uh, what about next of kin, like for emergencies?”

He heard pages rustling. “She left that blank on the form. That’s not unusual.”

Mason sighed with defeat. “All right. Thank you,” he said quietly and hung up. Her friends, relatives, employer, he had never heard who any of them were and, until now, he had always preferred that. He realized that the only person he could think of who was likely to have her present address and phone number was Officer Borst. It was hopeless.

Mason looked at the card again. It had become a cruel hoax, another betrayal. It wasn’t fair. In fact, none of it was fair anymore. Everyone seemed to be determined to deny him, when all he wanted was to make them happy. He had never been cruel or mean toward anyone that he could remember, and this was what he had reaped.

He sat there in the silence of his office for a long time, staring at and beyond the mostly closed window blinds, until he started to become drowsy. He sighed and thought of what George said, “there will always be another bus along.” Mason picked up the card and tore it into little pieces which he sprinkled into his waste basket. He dialed again, this time without anxiety, and George answered on the third ring.

“What time tonight?” Mason asked.

“I don’t know. About eight. You want to know anything about your date?”

“Does she have one eye or a deformed hand or anything like that?”

“No. Just the usual parts.”

“That’s enough to know.”

“I thought we’d have a few drinks,” George explained. “Maybe listen to some jazz at Claude’s Club. Unless you’ve got something else you’d rather do.”

“It’s your show, George. Whatever you say is fine.”

“OK. See you later.”


It was a relief to have made the call, although Mason was not sure why. At least it was a kind of progress. And Mason could not tolerate sitting alone in his office any longer. He worked the buttons on his phone machine and spoke a new announcement into it. And then he left.

It was about thirty minutes later that the phone rang and the machine answered.

“This is Mason Prewitt. It’s noon on Saturday and I won’t be back until Monday morning. I’m not accepting any new clients in my law practice. If you’re one of my current clients, leave your name and phone number when you hear the tone. I am also not accepting any personal calls on this phone. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

The machine said BEEEEP. But the woman who had listened to the recording of Mason’s voice hung up without speaking.

On his way home, Mason stopped at a store and used his credit card to buy a second answering machine. He planned to put it on his home phone. “This’ll make your life a lot simpler,” the salesman assured him.


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