A Different VoiceChapter 9
The first time the social workers showed up at our door, two weeks after Roxanne was killed, I let them in. Didn't know why they were there, didn't know the difference, didn't realize……They seemed like ordinary people, nicely dressed, polite……
Bud knew right away, as soon as he saw them. He told me later he can spot 'em from across the street. Nothing to do with their car, or their clothes….he said it's something in the way they hold themselves, the way they stand, and walk. The way they see themselves, maybe.
As soon as he came in the room, I knew I'd made a mistake. I seldom see alarm on his face, but it was there that day. He told me to take the children upstairs. I did that. I could hear the murmur of voices through the floor, then shouting, and it wasn't just Bud's voice that was raised.
The door slammed. I watched out Becky's window as they got in their car and drove away. Bud came up the stairs two at a time. "We need a lawyer," he said. "They're gonna be back."
He crouched down next to Charles, who was sitting on his bed. "Hey, pardner," he said. Charles looked up, but didn't say anything.
We were worried about the little guy. There hadn't been any hopping, no stick-horse riding, no laughing or hugs, since we had to tell him about his mother.
We'd gone to the church for Roxanne's funeral, and Charles refused to go in. Absolutely refused, and nothing that any of us said or did made a difference.
We'd had to tell the Reverend to go ahead without us, and the 4 of us sat in the car until the hearse drove toward the cemetery with the casket.
We asked Charles if he wanted to go to the cemetery and he shook his head. So we went home.
Arbutus said to let him be a little longer. "Takes a while to get used to things sometimes," she said. "You should know about that."
Bud paid for the funeral. Charles had no memory of any relatives; we weren't even sure what Roxanne's real name was. The county would have paid for a pine box for her, but…..Bud wanted it to be better than that.
He spent time at the Reverend's house. I didn't ask, but I think Richard was living there.
He spent a few days with Herbert, talking about the job coming open.
When he was home, he brooded a lot. Didn't have much to say. Between him and Charles, our little house wasn't very cheerful. Becky was bewildered. She couldn't make either one of them smile.
And he didn't want to fuck. That worried me.
The lawyer told us to let the social workers take Charles. You probably can guess what Bud's reaction was.
"We can petition for you to be named the boy's guardian, but in the meantime, he's a ward of the state, unless a relative can be found," Mr. Nimitz said. "He'll be taken to a State home, and then placed with a foster family, if there are any openings. He'll be fine."
"You don't know what the fuck you're talking about. My son is not gonna be farmed out to some asshole to be stuck in a closet so they can spend his check on booze!"
"Mr. White, please. Calm yourself. The boy will be fine. The case workers are professionals, they investigate all the candidates for foster families."
"Sure they do. Yeah."
Before I realized what he was going to do, his fist crashed down on the lawyer's glass-topped mahogany desk. "The State's gonna take my boy over my dead body." The crack in the glass ran almost the full length of the desk.
Mr. Nimitz was aghast. "Look what you've done! My desk!"
"Yeah, your fucking desk. Bill me." And he walked out.
"I will! Don't think I won't! My desk!"
It took me 20 minutes to calm him down, and get him to agree to start the process. He refused to deal with Bud again, though; everything would have to go through me.
I hid Bud's gun. It was an underhanded thing to do, I know. A good wife would have had faith in her husband's decisions; would have supported him and stood behind him whatever he decided to do.
I wasn't worried much just then about being a good wife; I was more worried about Bud going to prison. I was afraid he was on the edge.
They came again a week later, brought Herbert with them this time.
Bud answered the door when they knocked. "Get off my porch," he said.
"Mr. White, I hoped you'd have had time to calm down." The woman wasn't intimidated. She didn't move a step. Stood her ground and stared right back at him, a stone in a two-piece business suit. "I have a court order to remove the boy into the custody of the State. If you attempt to obstruct us in the performance of our duty, you will be placed under arrest."
Herbert looked like he'd rather be at his own funeral than standing on our porch.
"Don't try it, Herbert," Bud said to him.
"Now, Bud, you know this ain't gonna do you any good. Don't make it any worse than it already is."
"Worse for who?"
"Well, for me, a' course. I don't wanna have to arrest you."
"You think you could?"
"I s'pose not. You could probably knock me into the middle of next week. But I have to try. You know that. And we're friends, ain't we?"
"I can't let you take him, Herbert."
Herbert heaved a sigh. "I know. He's a helluva nice little fella. But I 'spect you'll get him back. Won't you?"
"Sheriff, I think that's enough talk. Here, Mr. White, is the order. Stand aside."
Bud stood in the doorway. Didn't move, except to turn his head to look at me.
He knew he couldn't win. I could see it. He knew it, but it didn't matter. He meant to stand in the doorway, meant to put his fists up and do as much damage as he could, regardless of the consequences. And it wasn't because he was out of control as I feared, it wasn't because he was irrational. It was because there was nothing else he could do. The only other option was surrender. And he just couldn't do that.
"Bud, listen to me," I said, and got between him and Herbert. "They'll never let you have him if you go to jail. Never." I wasn't sure if that was true, but I put my hands on his face and said it again, anyway. "If you go to jail, you'll never see him again. We'll get him back, but you have to stay out of jail."
He shut his eyes, leaned his forehead against mine, put his arms on my shoulders. "You don't understand, baby. You don't know what could happen to him."
"You'll never get him back if you go to jail."
"Who's gonna….who's gonna look out for him? He's just a little boy. Ah, God….."
He moved back out of the way.
The social workers didn't waste any time. They slipped past us and up the stairs. We waited for them, but they took Charles out the back door. We didn't realize it until we heard the car start.
Bud pushed me aside and ran out the door, but it was too late. The car was too far away.
"They didn't let me say goodbye." He turned toward me and I was reminded of another day, a rainy day in the past when he lost something else he cared about. "The fuckers didn't let me say goodbye to him."
Herbert said, "I'm sure sorry about the way this turned out---"
"I think you better take off," I said.
"Well, I just wanna say---""Now! Shoo!"
"Oh." He looked startled, then he looked at Bud who was coming back to the house. "Oh. Right." And he left.
Bud called Mr. Nimitz. I was grateful to the lawyer; no one would have blamed him for hanging up as soon as he heard who was at the other end, but he didn't. He stayed on the line and talked to Bud, tried to calm him down, promised to find out what he could and let us know.
And then there was nothing for Bud to do. He tried to sit and be still, but he just couldn't. He paced for a while, and he hurt his hand on the doorframe, but he didn't break anything before he headed outdoors.
I called Arbutus later, not because Bud was in a rage, or because I was afraid for myself or my house, but because…..I needed someone else to worry with me. Somebody who cared about him, who might know what to say or do…..
So I had to explain some things to her. Not everything. It was easier than I thought it would be, though. She didn't say too much, just nodded her head to show she understood. No lectures, no "what you should have done"; she just listened, and when I trailed off, she said, "Poor boy." I wasn't sure which one she was talking about.
It felt like we were keeping a vigil that afternoon. I guess we were.
We talked, Arbutus and I, about what to do when Bud got to the exploding point. I knew it was only a matter of time until he took off, looking for something to do. He could've been killed the last time he got drunk and went looking for trouble. Not to mention it was just luck he didn't end up in whatshername's bed.
I thought I should go with him if he left, but Arbutus said no. "If he goes drinking, you don't wanna be trailing from bar to bar after him. You don't. And if he's looking for a fight, you won't do him any good."
I was glad when Becky woke up from her nap, to give me something to do. I heard her murmur to herself, then cry a little.
"Wait," Arbutus said when I started to get up. "Just wait. Let her cry a little. Won't hurt her."
A few minutes later, Bud came into the house. "What's the matter with Becky?"
Arbutus shrugged. "You could go see."
He frowned…..but he went upstairs.
When he came back down with Becky on his arm, he said, "She was wet," a little accusingly.
Becky wrapped her arms as far around his head as she could reach, opened her mouth really wide, and planted it on his cheek.
"Hey, sweetheart, what're you doing there?" He pulled one of her arms down. "I think I'm gonna give you to your mama."
"Huh," Arbutus said. "You've taken to refusing kisses, now, have you? You're worse off than I thought."
He blinked. Becky pulled her arm away from him and kissed him again. He sat down.
"You should feel honored." Arbutus got up to get him a cup of coffee. "It ain't everybody that gets a woman's very first kiss."
"She can tell you're upset," I said. "What do you do for her when she's upset? She's just trying to make you feel better."
Arbutus put some Scotch in the coffee and set it in front of him.
He wiped the drool off his jaw with the collar of his shirt.
"She'll get better with practice." Arbutus smiled.
He didn't leave. He stayed and held Becky. Hugged her hard enough once that she squeaked. Arbutus kept feeding him coffee with Scotch in it, not so fast that he got sloppy drunk, but enough to keep him in his chair, enough to loosen his tongue a little.
"The State homes are full of all the kids that even foster parents don't want. Some of 'em are OK, but some of 'em…….." He shook his head. "He's just a little kid. Too little to defend himself."
"Did you have to defend yourself?" Arbutus asked.
"Maybe they'll put him in a foster home right away," I said.
He looked down at the floor, and clenched his fist. "That one place I lived, I woke up in the middle of the night, and the house was burning down around me. They were popping junk, and knocked the cooker over. I had to go out the window."
"Bud," Arbutus said, "that was when you were a kid. A long time ago. Things might be different now."
"People are the same."
"No." She reached over and patted me on the knee before she got up and went around to stand next to him. "You're forgetting where you live, honey. You ain't in Los Angeles anymore." She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "I think it might be a little different here. Don't worry so much."
She kissed Becky, who blew bubbles at her. "And I thank you for giving me some a' your troubles."
Bud caught her hand, looked up at her. "Arbutus---" And then he couldn't seem to say what he wanted to.
She smiled. "I know." She stroked the side of his face, and kissed him again, and then she went home.
I didn't expect anything that night, after Becky went to bed. I thought probably he'd go to sleep, like he'd been doing, if only because of the Scotch. But he turned over on his side, toward me.
"You get a lot of my troubles," he said. "I'm sorry about that."
"Do you know why Arbutus thanked you?"
He shook his head.
"Sometimes it feels like a gift, when you tell me things. When I don't have to stand on the outside trying to figure things out. It might be the same way for Arbutus."
"A gift, huh?"
I nodded. "Like now---I don't know why you've been so quiet." That wasn't quite true-I had an idea what it might be. "I know you're worried about Charles, but I don't think that's all of it."
"A gift." He thought about that for a while. "OK." Folded his arm under his head, and said, "It's because of what she said. She never said she loved me. Not once. Until that day in her motel room."
I didn't have to ask who he was talking about. I scooted closer and put my arm around his waist.
"I don't know whether she was lying……….or telling the truth. If she loved me, but I dumped her…..and she was pregnant, and all alone…….Maybe it was my fault, maybe I went off half-cocked---"
"No." I put my fingers over his mouth, and looked right in his eyes. "She was trying to get you to do something for her. That's all it was. She didn't even love Charles. How could she love you? We just didn't get to find out what she really wanted."
He wasn't convinced. "But she pushed me outta the way. Otherwise me and Donny woulda been twins."
……Roxanne's body, lying on the floor……what was left of it…….and all the blood……and if she hadn't pushed him to the side, it would have been Bud there……I shivered. "Don't even say that."
"OK, baby. Maybe that's enough talking, anyway. Wouldn't want you to mistake me for the Rev."
He put his fingers under my chin to hold me still, and then he kissed me. "And I got something else for you, anyway," he said. "If you want it."
I already knew that; I could feel it pushing against my belly. "That's a silly question." I hooked my leg over his hip. "Why would I say no to this big fella?"
I know men think prostitutes are crazy for sex; nymphomaniacs. Maybe there are some like that-but I never met any. After a few years of working steady, you kinda lose your taste for it……if you had any to begin with. Not what you choose to do when you're not working.
If I weren't married, if I didn't love Bud……I think I could live just fine without ever having to do it again. Don't get me wrong, I like it OK sometimes. It's just not as important to me as it is to him.
I never tell him no. Never. No matter how I feel, whether I'm in the mood or not, headache or stomachache, it doesn't matter. All those years of saying yes to every schmoe with a couple hundred bucks---it just seems to me it wouldn't be right to say no to the man who loves me.
I knew the first time I talked to him he was different. I had a lot of opportunity to study men, and Bud wasn't like anybody I'd ever met. So….emotional. Unguarded, no matter how tough he is in other ways.
He didn't care about Veronica Lake. He looked at my face almost the entire time he was there. My face. He listened to me. And when he showed up at my door the next time and told me his name, he was still looking at my face.
I'd been working all night, you know; I wasn't yearning for anything physical. I wanted to get to know this guy. But no matter how different he was, he was still a man, and men want certain things. Expect certain things. He got to know me his way first, and we talked afterwards. It worked out.
Maybe it happened at just the right time. I'd been saving my money, I wanted to go back home and open my shop, live a normal life……but sometimes you feel like that's never going to happen. That you'll be alone for the rest of your life, just a body for hire. Forever. Sometimes you feel like that's all you deserve.
So maybe that's why I took such a big chance on him that morning, and decided to just be….me. I might never have had that kind of chance again……
He would hate it if he knew I wasn't as hot for sex as I pretend. I didn't realize at first how much he would hate it. By the time I did it was too late to change my MO. So I just can't let him find out. I'm pretty good, you know. There's only been a couple of times I didn't do such a good job, and he realized I wasn't hungry for it, too.
Once was after the first miscarriage. I was so scared I was going to lose him. I did everything wrong for a few days.
He says he could handle it if I don't want to make love every time he does……but I'm not going to take that chance. When I really don't feel like it…..I just remind myself that every touch, every kiss, every thrust, is carrying his love along with it. And I would do anything not to lose that.
A shotgun blast isn't something I'd wish on anybody, but I was glad Roxanne was gone. I know that sounds cruel, but it's the truth. Whoever shot her saved me a lot of grief.
Now all I had to worry about was her ghost.