T is for Trespass - Page 42/144

At 2:00, clipboard in hand, I arrived for my appointment with Gladys Fredrickson. She and her husband lived in a modest house near the beach on a street being overtaken by much grander homes. Given the exaggerated prices of local real estate, it made sense for buyers to snap up any house for sale and do extensive remodeling on the existing residence or raze the entire structure and start from scratch.

The Fredricksons’ one-story frame house fit the latter category, not so much a fixer-upper as something you’d bulldoze, pile in a heap, and burn. There was a shabbiness about the place that suggested years of deferred maintenance. Along the side of the house, I could see that a strip of aluminum gutter had come loose. Below the gap a clump of rotting leaves lay fallen in a makeshift compost heap. I suspected the carpet would smell damp and the grout between the shower tiles would be black with mildew.

In addition to the wooden porch stairs, there was a long wooden ramp that extended from the drive to the porch to allow wheelchair access. The ramp itself was mottled with dark green algae and doubtless became as slick as glass whenever it rained. I stood on the porch looking down at the ivy beds interspersed with the yellow blooms of oxalis. Inside, the dog was yapping at a rate that would probably net him a swat on his butt. Across the side yard, through a chicken wire fence, I caught sight of an elderly neighbor lady setting out what were probably the annual Christmas decorations on her lawn. These consisted of seven hollow plastic Santa’s helpers that could be lighted from inside. Also, nine plastic reindeer, one of which had a big red nose. She paused to stare at me and my quick wave was rewarded with a smile laced with sweetness and pain. There had once been little ones-children or grandchildren-whose memory she celebrated with this steadfast display of hope.

I’d already knocked twice and I was on the verge of knocking again when Gladys opened the door, leaning heavily on a walker, her neck encircled by a six-inch foam collar. She was tall and thick, the buttons of her plaid blouse gaping open across her ample breasts. The elastic waist on her rayon pants had given way and she’d used two large safety pins to affix the trousers to her shirt, thus preventing them from dropping and pooling around her ankles. She wore a pair of off-brand running shoes, though it was clear she wouldn’t be running any time soon. On her left foot, a half-moon of leather had been cut away to provide relief for her bunion. “Yes?”

“I’m Kinsey Millhone, Mrs. Fredrickson. We have an appointment to talk about the accident.”

“You’re with the insurance company?”

“Not yours. I’m working with California Fidelity Insurance. I was hired by Lisa Ray’s attorney.”

“Accident was her fault.”

“So I’ve been told. I’m here to verify the information she gave us.”

“Oh. Well, I guess you better come on in,” she said, already turning her walker so she could hump her way back to the La-Z-Boy where she’d been sitting.

As I closed the front door, I noticed a collapsible wheelchair propped up against the wall. I’d been wrong about the carpet. Theirs had been removed, revealing narrow-plank hardwood floors. Staples that once held the padding in place were still embedded in the wood, and I could see a line of dark holes where the tack strips had been nailed.

The interior of the house was so dense with heat that the air smelled scorched. A small brightly colored bird was fanning its way like a moth from one drapery panel to the next while the dog pranced across the sofa cushions, toppling the stacks of magazines, junk mail, bills, and newspapers piled along the length. The dog had a small face, bright black eyes, and a poufy cravat of hair spilling across its chest. The bird had left two white poker chips of poop on the floor between the end table and the chair. Gladys hollered, “Millard? I told you to get that dog out of here! Dixie’s up on the couch and I can’t be responsible for what she does next.”

“Goddamn it. I’m coming. Quit your hollering,” Millard called from somewhere down the narrow transverse hall. Dixie was still barking, dancing on her hind legs with her dainty front feet pawing the air, her eyes fixed on the parakeet, hopeful that she would be rewarded for her trick by getting to eat the bird.

A moment later Millard appeared, propelling his wheelchair into view. Like Gladys, I judged him to be in his early sixties, though he was aging better than she. He was a heavyset man with a ruddy face, a thick black mustache, and a head of curly gray hair. He whistled sharply for the dog and she hopped off the sofa, crossed the room rapidly, and leaped onto his lap. He did a rolling pivot and disappeared down the hall, grumbling as he went.