G is for Gumshoe - Page 71/98

Irene and I sat with our heads bent together, meticulously filling in the meager information she had. This took a little over one minute and covered race (Caucasian), sex (female), military service (none), Social Security number (none), marital status (widowed), occupation (retired), and several subheadings under "Usual Residence." What distressed Irene was that she didn't know the year of her mother's birth and she didn't have a clue about where Agnes was born or the names of her parents, facts she felt anyone with an ounce of caring should have at her fingertips.

"Quit beating yourself, for God's sake," I said. "Let's work backward and see how fat we get. Maybe you know more than you mink. For instance, everybody's been saying she was eighty-three, right?"

Irene nodded with uncertainty, probably wishing the form had a few multiple-choice questions. I could tell she was still agitated at the notion of her own ignorance.

"Irene, you cannot flunk this test," I said. "I mean, what are they going to do, refuse to bury her?" I hated to be flip, but I thought it might snap her out of the self-pity.

She said, "I just don't want to get it wrong. It's important to do it right. It's the least I can do."

"I can understand that, but the world will not end if you leave one slot blank. We know she was a U.S. citizen so let's put that down… The rest of the information we can pick up from your birth certificate. That would tell us your parents' place of birth and their ages the year you were born. Can you lay your hands on it?"

She nodded, blowing her nose on a handkerchief, which she then tucked in her robe pocket. "I to almost sure it's in the file cabinet in there," she said. She indicated the solarium, which she'd set up as a home office. "There's a folder in the top drawer labeled 'Vital Documents.' "

"Don't get up. You stay here. I'll find it."

I went into the next room and pulled open one of the file drawers. "Vital Documents" was a thick manila folder right in the front. I brought the entire file back and let Irene sort through the contents. She extracted a birth certificate, which she handed to me. I glanced at it briefly, then squinted more closely. "This is a photocopy. What happened to the original?"

"I have no idea. That's the only one I ever had."

"What about when you applied for a passport? You must have had a certified copy then."

"I don't have a passport. I never needed one."

I stared at her, amazed. "I thought I was the only person without a passport," I remarked.

She seemed faintly defensive. "I don't like to travel. I was always afraid of getting ill and not having proper medical help available. If Clyde had to travel overseas on business, he went by himself. Is that a problem?" My guess was that she and Clyde had argued about her position more than once.

"No, no. This will do, but it strikes me as odd. How'd you come by this one?"

She closed her mouth and her cheeks flooded with pink, like a sudden restoration to good health. At first, I thought she wouldn't answer me, but finally she pursed her lips. "Mother gave it to me when I was in high school. One of the more humiliating moments in my life with her. We were writing our autobiographies for an honors English class and the teacher made us start with our birth certificates. I remember Mother had trouble finding mine and I had to turn my report in without it. The teacher gave me an 'incomplete'… the only one I ever got… which just made Mother furious. It was awful. She brought it to school the next day and flung it in the teacher's face. She was drunk, of course. All my classmates looking on. It was one of the most embarrassing things I've ever been through."

I studied her with curiosity. "What about your father? Where was he in all this?"

"I don't remember him. He and Mother separated when I was three or four. He was killed in the war a few years later. Nineteen forty-three, I think."

I glanced down at the birth certificate, getting back to the task at hand. We'd really hit pay dirt. Irene was born in Brawley, March 12, 1936, at 2:30 a.m. Her father was Herbert Grey, birthplace, Arizona, white, age thirty-two, who worked as a welder for an aircraft company. Agnes's maiden name was Branwell, birthplace California, occupation housewife.

"This is great," I said and then I read the next line. "Oh wait, this is weird. This says she was twenty-three when you were born, but that would make her… what, seventy now? That doesn't seem right."

"That has to be a typo," she said, leaning closer. She reached for the document and peered at the line of print as I had. "This is off by years. If Mother's eighty-three now, she would have been thirty-six when I was born, not twenty-three."