Alec decided to walk back to the California street office. The rain from the coast hadn’t reached the city but it was windy and cool. Along the way he called Aaron Fisher, Buckley’s lawyer. He had talked to the attorney only a few times since that first call, when Fisher had told him about David Buckley and about what Ellis had agreed to do for him. It was bizarre then and it still is, even for what we do, Alec thought.
“Ellis said you wanted to talk”? Alec asked.
“I wanted you to talk. When do you think this will be over? I get daily calls from his wife’s attorney. They are pretty focused on the abuse aspect, abuse of an incompetent patient.”
“I really don’t know when it will be over,” Alec said. “He’s pretty deep into it. Even if we came up with a novel diversion it would only delay him, probably not stop anything. We’re still trying. Since I have you on the line, what were, or are, his interests that would appeal to him? That would bring him back to the world?” He didn’t want to talk about this with Fisher. He didn’t want him to think that Alec had a situation he couldn’t handle. But maybe Fisher would have an idea for Buckley and he badly needed an idea.
“His work, what do you think? Haven’t you been talking to him?” Fisher’s voice was distorted by a bad phone connection but his sarcasm was clear. “Are you asking if he was an ardent fisherman? Or secret poet?”
Lawyers, Alec thought. “Well, he is not working any more. You’ve been his lawyer forever. What else does he like?”
“I am not his Facebook friend, I am his attorney.”
“Who apparently doesn’t mind going against his client’s wishes and is trying to get him back to the hospital.”
“As are you,” Fisher said, with a calm and confident lawyer voice.
“Please, counselor. I am persuading, not tricking.” Two weeks after Buckley had been moved to El Granada, Fisher had almost convinced him to return to the hospital. Fisher had said there was a new procedure which would reduce the risk of blindness during the tumor surgery. There was no such procedure and the ruse made Buckley doubly suspicious of everyone, Alec included, for several days.
“Whatever,” answered Fisher. It’s funny when a lawyer says that, Alec thought. Un-lawyerlike. “He was big on the arts and entertainment,” Fisher continued. “Large donor to the ballet company. And to some art group…Pacific Rim something. Sculptors, maybe. And I guess you know he’s not that close to wife.”
“But she is trying to get closer to him, right?”
“Yeah. She needs a few more signatures from him. Also, she wants him to be here when he passes away, instead of in some alley that will complicate the handling of the estate.”
“Friends? Pets?” Buckley had turned down countless requests from friends and business associates to visit him. He had virtually shut himself off from everything.
“No. I don’t know. Oh wait, I know. I know who you can try. He had a drama with a woman a few years ago. The Other Woman, sort of, I didn’t know much about it but she seemed hugely important to him. He was hanging around her a lot and then she cut him off. Let me think….about five years ago, I guess. Maybe she would talk to him.”
“A drama five years ago? That’s it?”
“Yeah. What was her name? Laura something. Let me look. I’ve got a folder here… but all I’ve got is a picture of him and the woman, with some other people. No paperwork or anything, just the picture.”
“Five years ago,” Alec mused aloud.
“Well, it might have lasted a while. I’m not his biographer. There’s a name under the picture…Lauren, not Laura, Girand? Maybe Girard. Lauren Girard or Girand. The picture I think is maybe four or five years old. But I remember, it was a big deal at the time. David was separated from his wife and spending a lot of time up there. Then all of a sudden he was back here and back with his wife, Melissa, and didn’t talk about it much.”
“You have an address?”
“No, I don’t have anything, just the picture. She was in Oregon. Portland, probably?”
“That’s it? Some woman from half a decade ago?”
“Alec, if I think of something else you will be ..”
“… the first to know,” Alec finished for him. “All right. Thanks.”
“What do you think,“ Aaron asked. “Will he come back?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t look like I am offering the right incentive.”
“Maybe you are not the right one offering.”
“Yeah, maybe. Thought of that. Send me the picture, will you?”
“Sure, I will send to your phone. Call me if things change.”
Yeah, send it, Alec thought. Whatever. What good would it do? Maybe it would get Buckley to look up for a minute. Then back to the button. We’ve got nothing else at the moment, however. Might as well see who is in Oregon. Alec went back to the office to try to find Lauren Girard, maybe Girand.
There were four Lauren Girards in Oregon and two Lauren Girands. Not all had addresses. Alec looked at the photograph which Fisher had sent. A group of seven adults posing for a photograph in front of Multnomah Falls, a prominent landmark outside Portland. He recognized Buckley, a younger Buckley, with hair, dark hair, and a lot more weight. Standing tall and smiling at the camera. It was a day for standing tall and smiling, sunny and warm in the Columbia River Gorge. He didn’t see Melissa Buckley. The name ‘Lauren Girard’, maybe Girand, was scribbled below a good looking woman on the end of the group. Alec looked closer. Dark hair, slender, average height. Hiking shorts and boots. Nice legs, he thought. Hair pulled up on her head with a scarf. Showing cute ears slightly sticking out. I can see a drama with her, he thought. I can see a thing with her. Slight smile, compared to Buckley’s big grin. Looking calmly at the camera. A button on her blouse open at the top showing a prominent collarbone. Are you married or what? He couldn’t see the hand well enough to spot a ring. Attractive face, eyes tilting up ever so slightly, strong cheekbones. Maybe this woman, this memory, would get Buckley to sit up for more than a minute. It would for me.
Alec saw other names scribbled on the picture: a “Darryl Gray”, “Tom Lanner”, “Gina Nixon”. Hiking club? Work retreat? Couldn’t say. Wonder what she looks like today, he thought. Buckley is older too. And some other changes for him. She’ll have added 20 pounds and will need to color her hair. Or maybe let it grow long and gray like a lot of Oregon women.
One of the Lauren Girard addresses was on the Pacific Coast, about two hours west of Portland. The second Lauren was eighty-five years old and living in a retirement home. The address for the third Lauren was a house on Alberta street which had been purchased ten years previously. Only one owner, Lauren Girard, on the tax rolls. Fine, I’ll go to Portland, he thought. I will be thorough if nothing else in this waste of time.
Three months after the sudden and bewildering death of her mother, Sylvie Girard felt that she had barely moved, emotionally. She was still angry and stressed but had not really grieved, much less come to terms with some sort of goodbye.
Sylvie had gotten over the initial shock. She had gone through detailed discussions with physicians and clinicians to try to understand. She knew what had happened. She knew how it happened. But not why it happened to her mother, or why now. Or how to deal with this baffling loss and move on.
At the same time that Alec Altman was headed to Portland, Sylvie was in her mother’s house there, having come up from San Francisco to go through her mother’s clothes and furnishings. She had been unable, or unwilling, to do it any sooner. I thought it might help to go through everything but it’s not, she realized. If three months ago we had learned that Mother had been given that much time, and we had gone through the three months, we would have said goodbye. I wouldn’t expect to talk to her. I wouldn’t expect to hear her reaction to some story I told. I wouldn’t be this paralyzed, this angry. I might not have this ache every time I wanted to hear her voice. I wouldn’t wonder over and over how I could have done things differently to spend more time with her.
There was an explanation. The doctors had all kinds of labels and phrases. Spontaneous coronary artery dissection. It even had an acronym, SCAD, and its own website. It meant that your artery to the heart had a rip, a tear in the lining, and that tear blocked the blood flow. Cardiac arrest within minutes, and unless you got immediate help…
But nothing about who gets it, how you spot it, how you prevent it. Sylvie, a medical researcher herself, had spent weeks studying the condition and had consulted with several cardiologists. She had to learn why this thing had happened to this person, at this time, in this way.
After a while she stopped. She realized that knowing the clinical details about this particular type of heart failure wasn’t going to help her with the emotional hurdle. Her research was just stalling, not getting to the point. It felt like she was on one side of a huge impenetrable wall and her mother, or her acceptance of her mother’s death, was on the other side. The research wasn’t going to scale the wall.
And the customary ceremonies, the formalities, didn’t help either. We’ve had the funeral, she thought. The twins came and we collectively went through the shock again, and later had good talks about Mother. I have talked with dozens of her friends about her life and how much she meant to us. Sylvie was still surprised at how many people had come to the funeral, most of whom she didn’t know. And everyone had been stunned. The reaction of shock was so common, so universal among the friends and family, that it irritated her somehow, trespassed upon her own private feeling of being shocked, rather than help her accept it.
She had taken more time off from her job to clear out the house and get it ready to sell. But I am hating this, she thought as she worked with Marie, one of her mother’s close friends who had offered to help. I’m not resolving anything, just jabbing myself with memories. She didn’t begrudge her brothers for staying in Europe. They had families, jobs. They weren’t going to come all the way out a second time to sort through dishes. But it was just painful, every dress looked at, every drawer opened, still painful.
And it didn’t take her mind off of Ryan, either. She had just gotten another text from him, asking for forgiveness in 100 characters. I hope he doesn’t find out I am up here, Sylvie thought. I really don’t want to see him for a while. Each time she got a message from him she relived that moment, that expression on his face. After the New Year Sylvie had told Ryan she was late and that the urine test showed positive. He was perfectly nice and supportive and they both knew it was preliminary. But there was something in his manner.
A few days later her period started. When she told Ryan his face showed understanding, even sympathy, but underlying that was an unmistakable relief, a look of reprieve. It hadn’t come at a good time between them. They had been living together for two wonderful years, after careful and deliberate conversations about their compatibility. But Sylvie had found herself wondering how much of the third year would be love and how much would be inertia. Apparently he had been thinking the same thing, Sylvie recalled. They had been talking and they both seemed to bring it up at the same time, being apart at least for a while. That was hard enough but soon after he moved out, Ryan said he had had a change of heart and wanted to move back in. Sylvie had been struggling with that when the call came from the Portland police. After that she hadn’t wanted to talk to Ryan about anything, even to tell him it was over and to stop calling.
I don’t want to even text him, she thought, surrounded by half-full boxes. I just want to avoid him and get on with the house. But I am hot and sweaty and I don’t like going through Mother’s things, it’s not helping. All these images, all of the memories … it was too much to take in all at once. She grabbed a stack of towels and without looking at them flung them all into a large Goodwill box.
* * * *
Alec drove through northeast Portland toward Alberta Street, in a neighborhood of well-kept homes. No signs of kids, though. This was a community that appealed to white childless couples even though many houses had three or four bedrooms. It was a warm and sunny day. The cold front had let up on Portland and had moved south to San Francisco. The locals were walking, biking, skating, anything to be outdoors.
He had kept looking at the photo of Lauren trying to imagine what she looked like today, and what he could possibly expect in the way of help with Buckley. He hadn’t asked Buckley about her, thinking a surprise would be better. Even if it was a painful surprise, it was still a diversion, maybe something to get him away from his button. He pulled up in front of a pale blue one-story house with a front porch that overlooked a large lawn with rose bushes and rhododendrons on the borders. The lawn rose up from the street and sloped up to the porch, a porch built in the 1940s for enjoying evening after supper, or for Sunday afternoons, talking to neighbors strolling along the sidewalk. As he walked up to the front door he saw that the lawn needed a cut and the roses needed pruning. They were starting to splay out and get stringy.
Alec knocked and stepped back from the door. There was no answer and he stepped forward to knock again just as it opened. His arm was raised to hit the door and he lowered it quickly. The woman from the photograph, Lauren, was looking back at him, but instead of the relaxed smile she had an irritated expression and bristly posture. Alec had expected gray hair and more pounds and was confused by the dark hair and neat build. And young, she looked as if she had barely aged. She also had her hair up in a headband like in the picture, showing the slightly sticking out ears. Her eyes were light gray so that her pupils stood out. Alec stared at her for a few seconds without speaking.
“Yes?” the woman said curtly.
“Um, Ms. Girand? I mean Girard, sorry. Ms. Girard?” Great start, he said to himself.
She frowned and stiffened a little more. “What do you want?”
“Sorry to trouble you,” he said haltingly. His mind raced trying to understand. There was a fan in the room behind her, blowing outward and he was catching her scent clearly, a fragrance she was wearing mixed in with the aroma from working on a warm day. It was compelling, even alluring to him and he thought: that doesn’t seem right. It put him further off balance. “My name is Alec Altman, and I am here on behalf of a friend, David Buckley.”
”I’ve never heard of him. Or you. What does he want?” She stood impatiently, her arm outstretched holding the door, opening her shirt slightly to show the collarbone framing her slender neck.
This wasn’t making sense to Alec. Buckley’s name hadn’t registered with her at all. And was the picture not five years old? From the looks of her it had been taken yesterday. Maybe Fisher had it wrong. Alec wanted to show her the photograph so she would remember but it was back in the car. And if she didn’t remember — forget it then. If she didn’t even remember Buckley then she wouldn’t be of any help.
“Sorry, David doesn’t want anything, nor do I,“ Alec said, he hoped not too defensively. “He is ill, down in San Francisco, and had mentioned you along with happier times in the Columbia Gorge,” Alec embellished. “I happened to be nearby and I thought I would say hello for him.“ That sounds awfully lame, he thought. This is a wasted trip.
The woman looked hard at Alec. “He mentioned me?” She shook her head dismissively and started to close the door. Alec was still trying to understand. Behind her in the house he saw packing boxes and empty shelves. Then she opened the door again and said, “Was it my…“.
“Mother!” they said together, Alec saying it louder, almost shouting. “Lauren Girard is your mother!” he said again. He was about to add “You look just like her,” but stopped himself. Not now. But she does resemble her, at least how she was, five years ago. She even has the same upturned eyes. He took a deep breath, more able to enjoy the scent in the breeze, and reflexively checked for a ring. But the daughter was still irritated and now also puzzled. Not in a good way. “Yes, my mother,” she said matter-of-factly. “Why are you here?”
“Really, it’s nothing. David has talked about summertime at Multnomah Falls,” he said, still embroidering, “and talked about hiking trips with her.” He would have talked about it if I had asked him, justified Alec. “So I thought that I would just stop and say hi for him.” Is the mother even here? he wondered.
He saw her face relax just a bit and she looked down for a moment, not speaking. “Yes, she enjoyed getting out quite a lot,” she said softly to the porch floor, as if she was avoiding a more pronounced statement. She looked up at Alec. “My mother passed away a few months ago. So, sorry, I wouldn’t be able to do anything for your friend.” Alec took a moment to absorb this. Of course, he thought. Of course she would be gone. We are just not going to get to Buckley, are we.
He shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts and to get back to the conversation. “My God, I am so sorry to barge in and trouble you like this,” he said sincerely, stepping backward. “I didn’t know.” He turned to leave and thought: I don’t want to go just yet. But she didn’t speak and he kept moving to the steps, not sure how to delay. “What’s wrong with him?” she finally said as he got to the porch steps.
He turned back to her slowly, trying not to appear too eager. “Brain tumor. Kind of a sudden thing,” he added. “The doctors give him six months.”
“That sounds bad,” she said, her tone less sharp. “I am sorry for your friend.” She looked back into the house at some boxes. “My mother had a lot of photographs, saved in boxes. I am going through them. I can pick out a few of the Columbia Gorge and send them to you.”
“Of course, that would be so kind of you,” Alec said. He didn’t care about the pictures, didn’t think they would interest Buckley as much as the real Lauren, but he couldn’t say that now.
She looked down again, not speaking. After a minute she looked up at Alec and said, “Please, I hope you understand. I don’t want any follow up from this. I don’t want to get your address and be obligated to send you something. Can we go through some of the pictures now and decide on a few for you to take, right now?” Alec looked into her light gray eyes and almost lingered there too long, too long for the situation. She is still getting over the loss, he thought. It was probably unexpected, an accident. She’s handling the house but didn’t start on it for some time, from the looks of it. No sign of Dad either. No ring. I hope I can get her name. She is obviously not giving it. What a confusing start. And this news about Lauren. I wonder what’s next. “Yes, sure, that would be great, thank you,” he finally said, genuinely glad to stay.
A few minutes later they were sitting on the porch bench with a couple of shoeboxes of photographs between them. When Lauren’s daughter had gone inside the house to get the boxes another woman had come out and looked Alec over. She was older, probably a friend of Lauren’s, Alec thought. He greeted her but she just nodded and went back inside. After the daughter had returned with the shoeboxes and they had sat on the bench the woman came out again with a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. “Warm day,” she said as she set it down on a small table. The daughter looked up with surprise, and then said, “Thank you Maria, but this will just take a second.” Alec took the opportunity and stood. “But thank you just the same,” he said. “My name is Alec.”
“Maria,” the woman replied. She looked down at the daughter on the bench. “Sylvie has introduced herself, no doubt.” Sylvie, Alec thought. Sylvie Girard. Still standing he said, “She has been very gracious about my intruding at such a bad time.” I won’t call her by name until she provides it, he thought. “We’ll just pick a couple of photos and I’ll be off.”
Sylvie had kept looking at Maria and after a long moment dropped her eyes. “It’s all right, really, please sit down, Mr. umm Altman. Maria’s right. It’s a good time for a short break.” Alec saw that by bringing the drinks, Maria had made Sylvie more piqued and less angry. “I’ll be inside,” Maria said as she left.
Sylvie poured a glass and handed it to Alec. She shook her head slightly as if thinking about something and then said, “Maria was close to my mother …” she trailed off. “And she is looking after her friend’s daughter,” Alec finished in an easy, conversational tone. Sylvie looked at him and Alec gazed back at her clear eyes under her dark eyebrows. “What do you mean?” she asked, not quite confrontational but needing an explanation for such a forward remark from a stranger.
Alec decided to explain. “My guess is that Maria thinks that you should spend a few minutes on the porch and should talk about something other than the packing up of your mother’s house. She thinks that it won’t hurt you to go through some polite rituals with a friendly visitor, and talk about times that may have been important to your mother. And she wants to let me know that she is nearby,” he added.
Sylvie looked at Alec again, appraising him. After a moment she said, “You might be right. Now let’s look at some of these.” She took a stack of photos and shuffled through them so that Alec could see. “Is your friend in any of these?” She is really listening to what I am saying, Alec observed. I should avoid a lot of small talk with her.
“That’s him,” Alec pointed to a photo with Buckley and Lauren, and one other man. It had been taken in San Francisco near the Embarcadero. “The taller one with dark hair.” Sylvie nodded and looked closer at the photo. She turned the picture over. “Five years ago,” she murmured, softly but still so Alec could hear. She took another small stack and looked through them, taking out a few and setting them apart. “Here is another one with your friend,” she said and gave Alec a questioning look. “I never met him. I wonder how often they were together.” She held up the photo. “Where was this taken?” she said, mostly to herself.
Alec leaned in to get a better look at the photo but also to get closer to Sylvie. He was still enjoying her scent and was able, out of the corner of his eye, to take in her profile, and the back of her neck with her hair pulled up. “I don’t know anything about this man,” she said in a low and slightly irritated voice, “who apparently was good friends with my mother.” Alec noted the openness of her remark, considering that they had just met. The photo showed another group picture, Buckley and Lauren, along with another man and woman. Again, they weren’t standing together, so their relationship wasn’t clear. They could be fellow birdwatchers, for all you knew from the picture. “That looks like Bodega Bay,” said Alec, and added “they’re in front of that popular crab shack there at the marina,” after Sylvie gave him an inquiring look.
“They got around a lot,” Sylvie contemplated. “This one is also from five years ago. November. And it was just a little while after that…” her voice trailed off as she thought about something, then abruptly said, “How do you know so much about them?” She regarded Alec with interest and some skepticism, but without, he observed, apprehension. He liked that she didn’t seem to mind talking with a stranger about something personal.
“I don’t know anything about them,” Alec laughed, hoping to put her at ease. “I know David. I have one picture of them back in my rental car, another group photo. That’s it. And you happened to show pictures of places I recognize. Random.” She gave Alec another skeptical look, and then keeping her eyes on him, she picked a photo from the group she had set aside and held it up facing him. He smiled and shook his head. “See, I don’t know that one.” Sylvie turned the photo around. It showed a picture of about eight people, including Lauren and Buckley, on Alcatraz Island. She laughed and the laughter sounded good to Alec, it sounded as if she hadn’t laughed in a while. “Mother never said anything about him, I wonder why.”
“Well, he was married, so it might not have been something to advertise.”
“He was married?” She laughed again and sank back on the bench in a more relaxed posture. She was about to bring her legs up on the bench but didn’t. “They were together all over, they took pictures to document it, he comes up here to Oregon, and Mother goes down to the City, and I don’t know a thing about it. I mean, I knew about her clubs and travel groups, but not about this man, who was with her quite a lot. And he’s married. There is a story here, even if it is five years old.” She turned on the bench toward Alec. “So, what is the story here, Mr. Altman?” She leaned over to reach for matches and a pack of cigarettes on the table and started to light one. She hesitated in mid-strike, and Alec said, “Please don’t ask if I mind.”
Without looking up Sylvie responded, “I wasn’t going to ask.”
“Good, because I wouldn’t have answered. It’s your porch.”
“Good, because you wouldn’t have gotten the chance to not answer,” she said and lighted the cigarette.
“Then that’s cleared up,” said Alec, “figuratively if not literally,” as she blew smoke toward the porch ceiling.
“I hope there is a story here,” he continued, and caught himself before he said her name aloud, Sylvie. Not until she does, he thought again. “I hope there is a good memory that we can bring up and that Mr. Buckley will enjoy. But I don’t know what it is. A friend of his says that he was mad for your mother about five years ago, and that he was married but separated at the time. He followed your mother around but after several months your mother ended their relationship, whatever it was. Later David was back with his wife. That’s it, as far as I know.” Well, that’s not quite all I know, Alec thought. I have an idea why Buckley was following your mother around.
Sylvie had been listening intently to Alec when her phone buzzed. She glanced down at it and then stared at the small screen in surprise, then obvious annoyance and dismay. She continued to look down, frowning and preoccupied with her own thoughts. “But perhaps I can talk to David about it, maybe find out what was going on,” Alec said, in part trying to bring her back. “What? Oh, right,” Sylvie said, looking up, “yes, I would like to know, if your friend can tell us.” She was polite but clearly upset at the message, and the laughter just a minute ago seemed far away.
Alec held her gaze for a moment then leaned back. It was time to go. He didn’t want to go, he wanted to stay and keep breathing in her aroma, keep looking into those gray eyes, keep taking in the back of her neck with the hair up. But the moment was gone and he didn’t think he could get it back. And anyway, now he might be able to get Buckley to sit up and talk about Lauren. Maybe not for long, probably not enough to get him back to the hospital, but it might result in something to give to this woman, a reason to meet again, something he could share with her. He stood up. “I should go now. You’ve been more than kind, at a bad time. I truly appreciate that. I think David will be interested in these photos and memories, thank you so much.”
Sylvie got up from the bench herself, still preoccupied. “How do you know it will be a good memory?”
“I don’t know. I only said he would be interested. But I have a feeling it will be a good interest.”
Maria had kept the front door open and Alec saw a box filled with various items including a few scarves. Worth a try, he thought. “Mr. Buckley is in an isolation ward, for infection control. He doesn’t get too many distractions. If there is a garage sale on your calendar at some point, or donation to charity, could I participate and buy one of these scarves? Maybe the red and yellow one would bring in a bit of color for him. A few dollars to Goodwill?”
Then Sylvia did smile again, and again a pleasure to Alec. It didn’t seem an obligatory social smile. “Please take it. But I’m curious … why did you think I wouldn’t want it?”
“Well, I didn’t know, but it’s in a box with some cassette tapes and a bread machine which looks like it has never been used.
“Here’s my card, just for the record.”
Clinical Trial Recruitment and Support
San Francisco New York City Scottsdale
“Thank you, “ she said. “I live in the East Bay myself. Now we can get in touch if we need to.” Meaning she will call if she wants to talk, Alec understood. “Clinical trials…?” She asked.
“Drug trials for testing new medical treatments, or drug therapies. We identify and screen patients. Assist during the trials.”
Sylvie nodded. She was going to say something but stopped, and then said simply “I hope this helps your friend.” Alec took one last look and then turned and walked down the porch steps to the car.
Instead of going back inside the house Sylvie returned to the porch bench. She wasn’t ready to get back to the sorting and packing. David who? She never knew him, never knew of him. She didn’t expect to know everything in her mother’s life but this was just another galling unknown, even if from years ago. There were enough unknowns.
And then this text just now from Ryan: Feel shut out from being able to grieve for your mother. She wouldn’t think this was fair. Would like to share some memories of her with you. The text had brought back her angry, frustrated feelings about her mother’s death. The feelings that seemed to slow her down from getting anywhere, doing anything. Not that those feelings are not always there anyway, she thought.
And angry at Ryan, she acknowledged. Before, she might have given him some credence in using her mother’s memory. Now it just seemed presumptuous. I’ve barely talked with him since March, she thought, and he thinks there is still something between us. I will call him now and get this over with. I need to be clear and direct.
And what about this Alec Altman! She hadn’t bought the whole picture at all, the story about coming here for a dying friend, but she wanted to know more about him. When she had first heard his knock on the door it had made her more irritable. She didn’t need any more neighbors who wanted to commiserate or reminisce. And after she opened the door he had just stared at her dumbly, a further irritation. How could he have mistaken her for Mother? That didn’t make sense. She didn’t look like her. But she liked the way he was flustered at first and then seemed to recover. She liked the ease at which he talked to her and asked for the scarf. No ring and not gay. He was comfortable with strangers but not in a salesmanny way. Not bad looking. Maybe a few years older than herself. She liked the way he didn’t look back when walking to the car. She looked at his card. Clinical trials! She had almost said to him, had almost blurted out: “What treatments for heart disease do you know about?” Funny coincidence. And maybe she could find out more about Mother and this this David whoever. What was the deal with them? Five years ago – that was when her own marriage blew up. She looked at the card again, at the phone number.
* * * *
After driving a couple of blocks Alec pulled the car over and stopped. He realized that he didn’t want to drive, he wanted to sit still and go over what just happened, how he had been bowled over by the daughter. He visualized her face, her ears. Her mouth when she said words with the letter R. Remembered the sound of her vowels in certain words. Slender, capable hands as she went through pictures in the box. “Sylvie Girard,” he said aloud. Good standing. Not sure what that means but it sort of fits her.
But now there was less chance of diverting Buckley. It would probably just make him more withdrawn to learn of her death. And he could say goodbye to the other stuff with Ellis. The other cases, the other projects he and Char were proposing, would remain just proposals if they didn’t get Buckley away from his button.
There might be something for Sylvie, though. There might be something he could find out that she would want to hear, which might her feel better about the mother’s death. He was still enveloped in her scent. He picked up the scarf she had given him. Something, not the daughter’s smell. Hope this is not too weird, he told himself, smelling the scarf.
While waiting at Portland International Airport he called Charlotte. “Any obituary for Lauren Girard, back in March?”
“Yes,” Charlotte replied, “it’s short though. Nothing about Buckley, or San Francisco. Three surviving children, two sons in Europe, one daughter in El Cerrito, East Bay. That’s the one of interest?” Charlotte was still reserved with Alec, still cool. She had been upset when the Katy re-enactment, the video, had been made and especially so when the video had been given to Ellis.
“Yeah. Did it say anything about her?”
“Not much. Nothing about any marriage or children of her own. She works at GenApac, a genetic research company in El Cerrito. Not a huge footprint on social media.”
“Is that good or bad?” he said, trying to be light.
“You probably think it’s good,” she said, her voice terse.
I wonder if we’ll get past this thing with Katy, he thought. “Char, the guys who are viewing the video – her story — I am seeing respect from them for Katy, for her life, not just a voyeur’s interest. It’s even more than a vicarious interest. Her story and how we supported her is making an impression on this group, and that’s saying something.” Charlotte didn’t answer but she didn’t hang up.
“We can build on that,” he said after a minute. “If we can get Buckley back to the hospital then we go right to the Oakland proposal with Ellis. He has already said he is willing.”
“That seems far away,” she said in a small voice. “So many ‘ifs’. Do we really need him? We were fine before.”
“We need him for the big stuff. The Oakland preserve is for hundreds of people, not one or two.” Alec and Char had proposed to Ellis a novel urban renewal project for a depressed Oakland neighborhood, to be funded by Ellis and his fellow venture human capitalists.
“If it ever happens. And I still don’t like this thing with Buckley. It’s just a whim for Ellis, it’s just something that crosses his mind every now and then.”
“I think it’s more complicated than that. I think Ellis is aware that he is getting farther away from the ‘real world’, and more reliant on indirect things like the video we put together. I think he wants some reassurance about the real world.”
Alec could almost hear Charlotte close her eyes and shake her head in frustration. “Or maybe Ellis is just a creeper who gets off from the bizarre. And what we’re doing to Buckley is bizarre, horrible.
“Do you think you will get him back to the hospital?” asked Charlotte.
After a pause Alec said “No.”
“No,” repeated Charlotte. “No.” She was quiet for a moment. “Alec, I think I will take some time off, see my family,” she said. “I’ll call you after.” She hung up before Alec could say anything.
While Alec was flying back to San Francisco, Sylvia got a call from her friend and co-worker, Jillian.
“When are you back in the office?” Jillian asked.
“Day after tomorrow,” Sylvia replied. “I guess I am done here for now. It’s just wearing me down, being here and going through her things. And it’s hot. I stink. I did put a lot of stuff in storage. I’ll have to deal with it later but I just don’t want to go through it now.
“Oh, and I just had a funny visit from a man, about my mother.” Sylvie described the visit from Alec and was surprisingly detailed about the encounter.
“You let him in? A stranger!?”
“No, we sat on the porch. Maria was right inside.”
“A perfect stranger?”
“He was okay.”
“How do you know? Out of the blue like that. Something seems off. He just walks up to your door?”
“To her door.”
“It’s yours now. Did you look him up? What was his name?’
She looked at the card again. “His name is Alec Altman. San Francisco.”
“Right, that narrows it down”.
“Some company named ‘TNR Recruiting’ “.
“Okay, let me look. There is a page with that name….pull it up on your end. I am looking at pictures of people in a hospital or somewhere. Which one is him?”
Sylvie scrolled to the page. “He’s the one on the right, in the center picture, taller, green shirt.”
“Hmm. Not bad. Doesn’t look particularly friendly. And the pictures are of other people, hardly any of him.”
Sylvie scrolled through the site. Jillian was right, there weren’t many pictures of him. Mostly patients, a lot of bald heads, or with scarves, people with walkers, wheelchairs. The photos weren’t all in hospitals. There was a picture of a boy named Manny, in a wheelchair on the beach, right in the surf. The wheelchair was somehow mounted on two skis? That didn’t seem safe, it might get stuck in the sand. They weren’t pushing him into the water, were they? The boy looked excited, though. Not much more about Alec Altman. No profile about him. She would have liked more information, more history. She clicked on ‘recent projects’ to see if there was anything on cardiovascular trials. No.
“Doesn’t tell you much about him,” said Jillian. “Not much here. That’s not a good sign. You don’t know if he’s attached or anything. You’re not interested, are you? And what’s wrong with Greg?”
Greg again. Co-worker. Fellow research scientist. “No. Nothing’s wrong with Greg. He’s fine.”
“Fine! He’s a great guy. And he likes you. He won’t be single for long.”
He was pleasant enough, Sylvie thought. A little solicitous. To be expected from a single man, even in the Bay Area. She thought of Alec walking away from the porch. Not so solicitous. “Greg’s fine. He likes to change positions too often.”
“Wait, what?” Jillian sputtered. “What was that?”
But Sylvie was thinking about the visit on the porch, the pictures, his conversation. And about the relationship between Mother and this Buckley man. Yes, I want to know more about that. Maybe other things.
* * * *
Alec had been ready to drive out to El Granada to see how Buckley would react to the remembrance of Lauren Girard, and maybe the scarf. He had to try everything. He was also thinking he needed something to get back to Sylvie with, and at the same time wondering why he thought he needed anything…why he didn’t just call her. Or at least first find out how to call her. He was caught off guard – again – when she called.
“Hi, this is Sylvie? Um, we just met in Portland at my mother’s house?”
Once more Alec was at a loss for words. Not even the basic ‘hello’ instinct kicked in. He was silent for a few seconds and then said “Of course, Lauren Girard’s daughter.”
“Yes, Sylvia Girard. Sylvie. I found another couple of pictures to give to you. For your friend.”
“Oh! Do you mean here, in the city? You’re here?” Smooth, he thought.
“Yes, I live in the East Bay. Just got back from Portland. I’d like to give you these photos, and maybe hear more about the recruiting for the clinical trials?”
“Sure, wonderful, and I would like to … to tell you about the clinical trials.” I can’t say I’d like to hear about the genetic research, Alec thought. Too much like stalking this soon. “That would be great.”
“Okay, tomorrow after work? Are you free? How about coming over here? ” and Sylvie named a restaurant in Berkeley.
“Or someplace else?” Sylvie asked, after Alec hadn’t answered.
“No, no, that place will be great,” Alec finally said. “It will be great – see you then.” I better hang up before I sound totally idiotic, he thought. I hope I can do better tomorrow.
* * * *
“Is this a date?” Jillian asked Sylvie the next day, as they were walking toward the restaurant.
“No, and certainly not if you are along. That’s why I asked you.”
“I don’t know why I agreed on such short notice. I’m not dressed for this. You are not dressed for this. I’ve got these hideous pleated pants on. Why couldn’t you have told me yesterday?”
“You look fine, Jill. It’s not a date, not even a ‘meet for drinks after work’ thing. We’re just going to talk to this man for a few minutes, that’s all.”
“Fine. We’ll say we have to go somewhere else. We can stay only a little while.”
Sylvie laughed. “Don’t say that right off.”
“You are acting a little funny if you ask me.”
“Am I? Well, kick me under the table if I act too funny.”
Pleated pants or not, Jillian would not have missed this meeting for anything. She was very curious about her friend’s interest in this man Alec. She spotted him standing at a pub table in the bar section of the restaurant. As they walked up toward him, Jillian gave him a good looking-over.
Not quite six feet tall, and she checked for elevator heels — didn’t look like it. Dark blondish hair, not particularly manicured. Good physique, as if he did some sport thing. He didn’t look old, mid-thirties, but his face seemed to have a lot of history. Not like wrinkles or too much sun or weather. It was as if there had been many different expressions on his face. That could be good or bad, Jillian thought. She was feeling both protective about Sylvie and a little competitive for Greg, her guy for Sylvie.
For the moment, his expression was friendly and interested as he greeted them, Sylvie first and then he waited to be introduced to Jillian. Not a bad first impression, she admitted to herself. Sylvie took his hand and seemed to take a moment longer than needed before she said, “This is my friend, Jillian. We both work at GenApac, genome research.”
“She doesn’t just work there,” Jillian said, feeling like she needed to promote Sylvie to this man. “She heads a team of PhDs researching genomic markers for diseases, like diabetes.”
“That sounds very impressive,” he said sincerely. “I would love to hear more about that, more about what you both do.” Jillian observed them through the small talk, noting the obvious remarks which were intended to include her in the conversation when their attention was clearly on each other. She felt the attraction between them and was coming around to being glad for Sylvie. After Alec had been explaining his role in recruiting patients for clinical trials, Jillian finally spoke up, not wanting to completely be a third wheel.
“Do you ever try to sneak people into the trials? You know, who don’t strictly qualify?”
“Of course he doesn’t,” said Sylvie. “That could spoil the entire trial. That could waste everyone’s time and ruin the chances of a promising therapy.”
Alec didn’t respond, just looked thoughtfully at Sylvie, and something in his face prompted Jillian further. “ ‘Of course you don’t?’ ” She repeated. “Never?”
“It isn’t done,” replied Alec mildly. “And if it is done, which it isn’t, you would do it so the trial results are not affected. You would find a way to keep the patient out of the final results.”
Sylvie’s eyes flashed and she straightened up, standing a little taller at the table. “In the first place, you are affecting the trial, just by including an unqualified patient,” she stressed. “Just by interacting with the experimenters, the doctors. Affecting their behavior with other patients. In the second place, you can’t just keep a patient’s data out of the trial. That is the trial: being monitored and recorded from start to finish. These trials need to be tightly controlled so that the results are valid.”
“You’re looking for certainty where there is none,” Alec said, a little more sharply himself. “The treatments are never entirely effective or ineffective. If a therapy is good it will prove itself, with or without any one patient, qualified or not.”
“That’s right, they are not black or white. And that’s exactly why you cannot have your one unqualified patient. There will always be qualified patients with ambiguous test results. You can’t add to that. ” Jillian watched this exchange with surprise and delight. Sylvie was showing much more animation than she had in a long time. And for a fairly obscure topic, Jillian thought. Not your usual after work talk. Is she really interested in this man? He is attractive enough, but it’s funny the way he’s arguing with her. An odd way to flirt. If that’s what he is doing.
“You wouldn’t add to it unless there was a potential benefit,” Alec said. “So, hypothetically, the small, undetectable change in the results from including an extra patient might be a trade-off for a big benefit for that extra patient. And if nothing else, that hypothetical patient gets a moment of hope.”
“Which seems selfish, the benefit for one at the expense of many.”
“Well, it’s hypothetical. On the other hand, using genomic research to come up with a DNA test to brand a person with a diagnosis, without knowing whether that disease will actually show up, that has consequences which are very real.”
Jillian was about to respond herself when she felt Sylvie stiffen and lean forward toward Alec. “It’s informing. Not branding,” she said heatedly. “You are deliberately mixing up the two. The idea is to help people improve their health. Knowledge of potential risks will help people prepare for them, maybe avoid them.”
“And it will also get people upset and anxious over a potential diagnosis which may never occur. There are a thousand external factors that affect whether you get a hereditary disease even if you have the genes, and the DNA tests can’t take any of those into account. The … the bacteria in your gut has a tremendous influence on your health, and the DNA tests can’t take that into account at all.” Alec was leaning forward himself, getting closer to Sylvie in this debate. Jillian, more fascinated than ever with the conversation between the two, tried to keep still and not attract any attention. It’s not that big of a table, she thought. They can’t lean forward much more.
Sylvie’s eyes narrowed, drilling into Alec. “Yes, there are other factors. Let me give you an example of another factor.” Jillian shifted her position a little, starting to feel uncomfortable.
“Genomic testing saved her life,” said Sylvie, nodding at Jillian. “She getting treatment now and has a normal life. The condition is familial hypercholesterol. Without testing for it, she has a heart attack and dies young. With testing she is alive and well, just like anyone else.”
“Well,” Jillian said wryly, “maybe not as private as anyone else.”
Sylvie turned to her, immediately contrite. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I am kidding,” Jillian said quickly. “It’s fine that you brought it up.”
“Jillian, I am so sorry — I don’t know why I said that. I shouldn’t have,” Sylvie apologized, distraught, straightening up and backing away a bit from the table.
“No, I am sorry,” Alec said. “I goaded the conversation that way, and I apologize to you both for that. It’s fabulous that you were identified and protected, Jillian. Of course that’s a wonderful test to have.”
Jillian turned to him and gave a short laugh. “Please, both of you, dial it down. We’re having a nice talk and there’s no reason to get all mournful. I was truly joking. It’s fine.” She wondered what she could say to get the conversation going again. “Alec, it’s your serve. About the testing.” Please come up with something good, she thought. Sylvie has been so dour.
Alec hesitated for a moment, and then said in a deferential tone, “Well, the test for FH is great, but it also argues my point. It’s one test for a specific and uncommon condition. Think about heart disease, which affects a thousand times more people than FH. As far as I know … which may not be far … we’re not close at all to linking up the genetic markers for heart conditions and preventing many heart attacks. The system is so complex, so subtle. Too many factors.”
That wasn’t the something, Jillian said to herself. You had to bring up heart disease. She saw that Alec’s casual remark had an immediate impact on Sylvie. She started to reply, but then became subdued and started to close in on herself, a familiar pose over the last few months.
After a pause Sylvie nodded and smiled. “Well, it is complicated,” she said in a quiet voice. “But we keep at it. We’re making progress, maybe not immediate, but there is progress.”
Jillian saw that she was going to leave. Sylvie pulled an envelope from her purse and handed it to Alec. “Here are two more photographs for your Mr. Buckley,” she said. “I hope they are of interest to him. Thank you for meeting us here. I’m afraid we have to go now.”
Alec gave her a long look. To Jillian his expression showed disappointment but not surprise. “I am grateful for these, and for the other memories,” he said. “It’s especially kind of you.”
Walking back to the car, Jillian said, “I am so sorry for joking around like that. I really didn’t mean to mess up the conversation.”
“No, it wasn’t that,” Sylvie said. “I feel terrible about bringing that up. But it’s not that.”
“Well, don’t let it bother you what he said. He doesn’t know anything about it.”
“I know, he doesn’t know anything about it, but it does bother me. It just does,” Sylvie said her voice quavering.
Speaking in an even lower voice to herself, barely audible to Jillian, Sylvie murmured, “I’ve got to get past this. Fine, I will call him again.”