“Mission Hills Confidential” by Grace Suh (from Kansas City Noir)
Mission Hills Confidential
by Grace Suh
Mission Hills, Kansas City (from Kansas City Noir)
Allison sits in the breakfast room and watches the cardinal pair, male and female, dipping in and out of the holly bushes where they make their home. She avoids this room in the morning—too much sun. But it’s tolerable starting from early afternoon, which it now is, when she can drink her tea and look out the tall windows and watch the shadows sit neatly under the trees like coasters.
Her husband Britt is upstairs in the green guest room. Since winter, when he fell in with a new group of friends, he’s been tumbling into bed at all hours, reeking of vodka and smoke and sweat. A month ago she asked him to use a guest room on nights he goes out, and mostly he remembers. For some reason he eschews the gray one with the nautical theme and king-sized bed in favor of the mint-green one with the Colefax chinoiserie print that swathes the walls, draperies, armchair, and dainty canopy bed.
She doesn’t know if he’s alive. If he isn’t dead, he’s probably close. The last time she saw him was three hours ago, at ten in the morning. He was sprawled on the tall double bed, his great spread-eagled mass covering nearly the whole of it, bedclothes tangled around his legs. He was either OD’ing or unconscious, his hand cold, his breathing shallow, irregular pants. No visible pain or discomfort. No panic like last time. Pants and socks thrown on the floor. She felt for his phone in his pocket and hung the pants on the back of the bathroom door. Most likely the battery was dead, but just in case, this would make it that much harder for him.
The house is so vast, and the walls and floors so solid and thick, that one can barely hear a thing from one room to the next. And the green guest room is over the library, clear on the other side of the house. In the house Allison grew up in, two blocks away, she and her father used the staticky intercom system to reach one another, but this house, though almost as large, is strangely without one.
Last time was two months ago. Allison awoke to screaming. It was six in the morning. A girl was shrieking so hysterically and insistently that the scream’s gauzy overtones managed to travel up and penetrate her deep, early-morning sleep. Allison stumbled downstairs, slippers in hand, following the sound to the kitchen. A young woman and two men were standing over Britt, who lay sprawled on the floor between the island and the double ovens. Allison reached him and he began a kind of convulsion.
“Where’s the shower?” the short guy yelled. “We got to get him in the shower!” As though the problem was that Britt was terribly dirty.
“Sit him up,” said the other guy. He had that shaved head thing that bald guys do, and looked very tall, doubling over to get a closer look at Britt. “He’s choking,” he reported, unnecessarily. Britt was coughing in a retching, erupting way. The tall guy yanked him up and as he did Britt’s eyes opened, the way a baby doll opens its eyes when tilted vertically. His eyeballs swung up and the lids closed again and then they opened and he looked stonily at his feet and said, “Unh uh uh.”
Something about it struck Allison as comical. She almost laughed. Maybe she did. The girl had been kneeling on the floor next to Britt, her fat bare knees sprawled so that her short dress hiked up even shorter, her fat hands clutching her throat as she shrieked, “Do something! Do something!” But at the sight of Allison her face lit up. There was something avid about her, a squirrel’s bright but distracted gaze shifting from emergency to stranger. She scrambled to her feet and lumbered forward, hand thrust out. “I’m Brandi! With an i!”
Britt mentioned these new friends sometimes, and weekend plans with them, with a child’s disingenuous glee, but Allison didn’t recall any mention of a girl. She’d figured the all-night techno and cocaine parties to be another of Britt’s misguided temporary enthusiasms, like the brief but equipment-intensive saltwater fish tank winter and the car racing lessons and the filmmaking group.
Brandi was as chunky and plain as a Cabbage Patch Kid. She wore thick, emphatic makeup, massive high heels, and a dress so tight it bunched all around her. Her hips and thighs were enormous. She was young, maybe mid-twenties. What kind of people name a child after a liquor? “That’s Nick,” Brandi said, nodding at the tall man. “And Ilon.”
Britt said, “Uh uh uh.”
“Can you breathe?” Ilon asked.
They never had people over, so it was a shock to see strangers standing around. They’d been there who knows how long. Half-empty drinks littered the counter. Nick reached over and finished one off. There was a little pocket mirror at the far end, by the beverage sink, with a rolled-up bill beside it. That struck her as funny too. Like an ’80s movie prop.
“That’s a lot of granite,” Brandi said, following Allison’s eyes.
“Marble,” Allison said. “Calacatta Oro.”
“No,” Britt gasped. “Can’t breathe.”
“Isn’t granite better?” Brandi said. “Doesn’t stain and stuff?”
Ilon pounded Britt on the back, like something had gone down the wrong way. “Britt!” he yelled, “Britt!” Or like Britt was suddenly deaf.
Ilon and Nick dragged him two rooms over to the library, Britt’s bulk listing between the tall, bald man and the short, hairy man. They leaned him back on one of the red brocade sofas and everyone grouped around and watched him breathe. His skin looked white and damp as poached fish. He reached over with his right hand and walked his fingers over the dome of his torso to his heart. For a second it looked as though he was going to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But instead he said, “My arm. Arm. Allison.”
The three looked at her and Allison turned and ran upstairs. She put on clothes and running shoes and grabbed her purse and phone, and when she got back to the library Britt was staggering back and forth before the fireplace with his right hand still over his heart. “I’m dying,” he said. “My heart won’t stop.”
“Okay,” Allison said. “You should get in the car.”
No one moved.
“I need help,” she said.
Brandi went to the kitchen and returned with a giant purse made of shiny white leatherette. It was suddenly awkward, like a dinner party dispersing after an unforgivable scene. Ilon and Nick pushed Britt out the front door and into the back of Allison’s car. Nick pulled the seat belt shoulder strap down but Britt shook his head violently no. His right hand was still stuck over his heart. “Nothing,” he said.
Nick and Ilon got into the front of their car, parked behind Allison’s Land Rover in the circular drive. Brandi stood with her hand on the Nissan’s back door, watching Allison walk around. She gave her a little wave. “So is your dad the guy,” she called in a conversational tone, “the one who died in jail?”
There was an hour wait before a triage nurse showed Britt down a corridor and up onto a gurney closely enclosed by polyester drapes. It was like being in a motel shower with two other people. Britt seemed revived by the imminence of medical care. He’d even made the walk from the waiting area by himself.
“What’s the problem?” the nurse asked.
“Overdose,” Britt said. Allison was surprised at his plain-speaking. “I had a heart attack or something from an overdose.”
The nurse took his vitals. She inquired what substances he’d taken. Coke? Yes. How much. A lot. Two or three lines, repeated several times over the course of the night. Ecstasy? Two. Meth? No. Heroin? No. Other opiates—Percocet, Percodan, Vicodin, OxyContin? One pill of something, at the beginning of the evening. Alcohol? Vodka tonics. Maybe five.
The nurse disappeared and no one came back for a long time. This must mean no dire danger. Britt seemed to think so too, because he cheered up. Flat on the gurney, he listened alertly to various commotions taking place around them. After a while he propped himself up on his elbows—a remarkably strenuous pose for one so hefty and so recently collapsed. He dug in his shorts pocket for his phone and took a glance. “No juice,” he muttered. He turned to Allison with a bright smile. “Do you mind getting me something to drink? And some kind of snack? I need salt. Oh, and a magazine from the waiting room?”
Allison said nothing. She pointedly took her own phone out of her purse, having been reminded of its useful distractions, and resumed a game on the New York Times crossword app.
What she minded most was that stupid fat slut’s invocation of her father. She didn’t deserve to as much as speak of him. It wasn’t just that this was the first time, in a very long time, a decade or more, that anyone had the stupidity and lack of tact to mention her father to her directly, it was also that the girl must have heard the story from Britt, meaning that he had betrayed her, wronged her, unforgivably.
“Do you hear me?” Britt said. He didn’t notice that she hadn’t yet said a word to him all morning. “Allison, water, I need water.”
“You could have died,” Allison said at last. “Next time, you will.”
“I know, yes,” Britt said. He thinks she is nagging—not predicting, not telling him. “I’ll be more careful.”
He won’t, she thought. It’s only a matter of time, probably days, before he’s back to the usual. Whatever Britt is, he’s not moderate. He drinks a lot. Smokes a lot. His favorite foods are Town Topic cheeseburgers and onion rings, his second favorite giant platters of pasta piled with meat sauce and melted cheese at Garozzo’s or Carmen’s. Some mornings he goes and gets an entire flat box of Lamar’s: apple fritters and cinnamon cake donuts and frosted Long Johns filled with whipped cream that has the pearlescent sheen and delightfully slick, frothy mouthfeel of nondairy, highly artificial ingredients. His own dad died of a massive coronary at age fifty-one, Britt’s age now.
At the emergency room, he was told to return for follow-up EKGs and to make an appointment with a cardiologist, but he never did. No matter what she does or doesn’t do today, the amount she’s shortening his life is probably not appreciable.
Even now, fifteen years after his death, people talk about her dad—nasty, hypocritical things. To hear them, you’d think this fair town was a stranger to financial malfeasance, rather than a regular hornets’ nest of it. She could drive up and down the pleasant lanes of the neighborhood and point out mansion after lovely mansion bought and paid for with embezzlement, blackmail, exploitation, and every other kind of scoundrel behavior and white-collar criminal activity, felony-class and otherwise. Certainly her father wasn’t the first nor the last from this town to be sent to the minimum security facility in Minnesota.
The talk is idly malign, the chatter of strangers, not directed at her. They just bought a house on that block, you know, the Mission Hills Swindler Street. Or Bold as Gould. Stuff like that. Local color.
To Allison, Morris Gould was a good father, a good parent. The only one she had, really. Her mother was sick from as early as Allison could remember, had been her entire adult life. Hence Allison’s adoption.
Mostly what Allison remembers is her mother leaning listless at the breakfast table after chemo, lips cracked, or sitting motionless in a wicker chaise in the solarium, wrapped in a quilted satin robe—the robe vermillion, the chaise cobalt, its cushions a riot of chintz, the scarf on her head brilliantly printed, her small face beneath, colorless.
She died two days before Allison’s tenth birthday, and then it was Allison and her father in the big Tudor pile on Verona. Consuelo came Monday through Friday, seven in the morning to butter Allison’s toast. Her father drove her to school, a terrycloth Chiefs robe over his pajamas, shearling slipper mocs on his bare feet, window cracked an inch even in freezing weather as a purely symbolic, wholly ineffectual nod to the smoke billowing from his Pall Mall. If anything, the slipstream pushed the smoke to the passenger side, rather than allowing it to waft over his head. He didn’t generally commence conversation until sometime around lunch, but as he pulled up to Sunset Hill, he’d throw her a winking, cigarette-clenched smile and pat her shoulder as she slid out of the beat-up Jaguar.
He was there again in the afternoon, one of the few fathers in the line of pickup parents. Even in winter he’d be outside, leaning against the car, Soviet spy-chic in ushanka and sunglasses, puffing on a cigarette, hands plunged deep into the pockets of his Mongolian-wool overcoat. Sometimes underneath he’d still be in his pajamas and Chiefs robe.
Consuelo waited until Allison got home so she could give her a kiss on the hairline before she left for the day. She referred to her as pobrecita and did what she could to assuage the sorrow and void she imagined was life without a mother, mostly by starching her clothes so stiffly they could barely be pulled off the hangers, and cooking and baking enough for lumberjacks. The house was so big she had enough to do just rotating through the unused rooms, vacuuming and waxing floors and dusting banisters and shining the leaves on the plants in the solarium and rolling up rugs and sending them out to be cleaned. No one ever went up to the third floor, once a ballroom, which was dimly lit and piled with old furniture and boxes of papers and books, nor to the moldering stone-walled basement, a tangle of ancient bicycles and sports equipment from her father’s youth, metal parts rusted and leather straps cracked.
Her mother’s dry cleaner–bagged clothing stayed hanging in her closet, tissue-stuffed handbags and wooden-treed shoes and tissue-wrapped cardigans stacked by color remaining on the shelves. In the drawers of the peach dressing room, her lipsticks were lined up by tube length. In the endless silence of the afternoons Allison sometimes sat in the gold scroll-work vanity chair and stroked waxy lipsticks on her lips, but her mother had been blond, with a pink complexion and neat mouth, a Pat Nixon type. On Allison’s olive skin, round Asian face, and full lips, the frosty pinks and gold-sparkled corals looked garish and improbable.
What her father did all day was harder to answer. Enormous, heavy, cut-glass ashtrays the size of candy bowls in hues of topaz and amber were set all around the house, dozens of them. The ones most often filled and even overflowing with half-smoked butts, as though the by-product of great industry, occupied the corner of the giant leather-topped desk in the dark library downstairs, and the center of the white Parsons cube between the boxy microsuede Italian lounge chairs in the study off his bedroom upstairs. What was he doing while all this smoking took place? Managing accounts, that was the only phrase she ever heard. Stacks of manila folders spilled next to ashtrays. And everywhere there were telephones—the heavy, old-fashioned kind with long, tangled cords—well into the 1980s. He smoked and talked on those phones.
Morris Gould was born in that house. His father, Harmon, had it built himself in the late 1940s, from the proceeds of a fur and real estate business that disappeared sometime in the interim. When they drove around downtown her father might gesture toward an empty and abandoned department store or pharmacy building with his cigarette and say, “Dad owned that one,” or, “He sold that one in the ’60s, when all this was empty. Made almost nothing.”
The family were suspect in Mission Hills from the start—Jews. So what, screw them. Harmon got around the Jew-excluding covenants by paying a third party to buy the land and build the house as if for himself. Like all Jews they were barred from the club down the road—her dad called it the KKKC Country Club. When he was young his parents were members at Oakwood, but by the time she came along he’d dropped the membership. Too far from home.
There were lots of Jews in Mission Hills by then, at Sunset Hill too. Not that she was considered one, being plainly not. At school she was friends mostly with Priya, a girl only three years removed from Delhi, whose parents were residents at the university hospital. It was a friendship she never thought to carry off the grounds. After school the other girls gaggled off in twos and threes and fours, to slumber parties and birthday parties and swim meets. The world of tennis skirts and tartan headbands and sunshine was not for her. She looked forward every day to returning to the murky depths and heavy, unbestirred air of their house. Loved the dense, voluminous falls of velvet drapery that rippled over the casement windows and pooled on the floor and could barely be pushed aside, loved the dark ornamental woodwork and paneling, the soothing silence and room after room empty of people.
On weekends, when it was only the two of them, it was enough just to sit for hours in solitude, exquisitely aware of all that uninhabited, enveloping space, feeling in perfect company, knowing that her father sat, also in solitude, also in great peace, down a long hallway, or downstairs. The metric tons of buffering brick and stone, plateaus of marble, the scant two acres of groomed, densely planted grounds, too steeply sloped to be usable for outdoor recreation—everything about the house suited them perfectly.
Which is to say that she understood, perfectly, why her father did what they say he did, what he was convicted of doing, what they put him in jail for. Why it was necessary. How could they live any other way? How could the house not be theirs? He did it for her. The censure of the public didn’t bother her, their easy judgment, their shunning. She has never cared what they thought. They don’t understand anything, not what is important.
The assets were dissolved while her father was in prison, so he didn’t have to see the house put on the market, and the horrific estate sale with the invasion of slovenly bargain hunters, swarming like sweatpanted ants, grasping boxes of silverware and resting Royal Derby tureens on their beer guts. It was her senior year at KU. She skipped classes and drove over from Lawrence to watch. What was worse, that hundreds grubbed through her mother’s pristine Jaeger and St. John’s wool jersey and bouclé suits? Or that in the end most of her mother’s clothing—bought in the smallest size and tailored even tinier around her narrow bird waist—went unsold and was dumped at the thrift store?
The house was sold to a guy who flipped it two years later at a huge profit, and for nearly a year construction trucks trundled in and out of the driveway. They said the entire interior was nearly gutted and reconstructed, the main floor “opened up, for casual entertaining.” Desecration. Paradise renovated. Even the lawn was terraced, many of the trees taken down. More opening up.
Her father’s sentence was five years, reduced to three for good behavior and because, in the second year, the cancer was discovered. Brandi should have listened to Britt’s story more carefully, because what Morris Gould did not do was die in jail. He received the first course of treatment in the prison clinic, but they let him out for what turned out to be his last four months. It was almost better when he was in prison. At least there his medical care was paid for, his meals provided. He had no insurance by that time, and everything had to be paid out of pocket. There was a trust from Allison’s grandfather, who’-d generously and promptly set it up at her adoption at age twenty months, fortunately so, since he died shortly after. And another trust created by her father that was also left intact. From these she bought the medications and paid the hospital bills, and then the funeral bills, and at the end was left with enough to afford a condo in downtown Chicago, where she had found a job as a cog in a Big Eight accounting firm—quite a delicious irony for the daughter of a white-collar felon. This is the glory of America, where the crimes of the father are not visited upon his child.- Except in gossip, of course. That is a life sentence.
The ironic job was soon after resigned, the Wrigleyville condo unbought; for Priya, by then a dermatology fellow in Phoenix, had flown in for the funeral, and when they were out to dinner together the next evening to catch up, they ran into Britt Fuller, whom Priya knew slightly from KU Med. Britt had graduated from medical school with Priya, but dropped out of residency the next year. He’d been a nontraditional student anyway, having entered on a lark at age thirty-five after a young adulthood of rich-boy bumming. The way he put it, the car repair part of medicine wasn’t interesting enough for the twenty-four-hour shifts. Not worth staying up for, he joked.
Britt was also an only child, also an orphan, of a family whose three-generations-old firm manufactured road resurfacing machinery. Britt was a year out of Rockhurst when his father had the heart attack. His mother died two months later, in an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease on the Caribbean cruise she was taking as relief from her bereavement. Britt has nothing to do with the company, but because of the family’s controlling share (a paternal uncle, who lives in Seattle and practices craniosacral healing, is the only other beneficiary), he has no need to seek employment.
Allison knew he was rich right away, before she learned any of this. No obvious markers. No watch. So-so wallet. His physical appearance was that of a corrupt old-timey banker, with his thick, prematurely silver hair, solid girth, and square, not unhandsome head, but he dressed like a character out of The Matrix, in black leather pants, a long black leather coat, and pointy black boots with too much heel, acres of leather on his ample frame. At the very least, it was an unusual look for a Plaza restaurant on a Thursday night. Chatting with Priya, he grabbed their bill folder from the waitress and stuffed in a stack of cash, way more than enough, without so much as glancing at the total. An obnoxious thing to do. Priya raised an eyebrow, but Allison didn’t mind. Her father might have done the same. Already she was taken by Britt’s air of complete indifference, the prick demeanor of one beholden to no one. It’s something that can’t be cultivated or pretended. It means money. Piles and piles. Lettuce. Lucre. Spondulicks, as her father used to say.
Britt was forty-one. She was twenty-six. A not indecent age spread. He should have been one of the most eligible bachelors in KC. Never married. Independent fortune—not as many of those in town as you’d think. And he was not quite fat yet, although he was getting there fast. But there was something off about him, and no one wanted him. Maybe it was the schizophrenic wardrobe, shifting from one ridiculous costume to the next: the black leather thing and a punk look with tight red pants and combat boots and a strange gaucho thing, with pleated shirts and embroidered vests and hats. There was barely a normal item in his closet. It was as though he deliberately chose clothing that highlighted his ever-increasing plumpness and inner instability.
She didn’t mind. Any of it. Not the way he leaked involuntary noises—little unprotected moans and sighs, like an infant fitfully sleeping—as though in private moments he immediately reverted to attending to long-nourished inner complaints and slights. Not the way his hand felt grabbing her breast—heavy and possessive but also oddly careless, a general undirected pawing. This led to rapid, panicked humping, and when he came, he yelled, and collapsed on her with huge heaving gasps and wrapped his giant self around her neat body.
Everything about her was smooth and sleek. Her small pretty hands with their shiny polished nails. Her smooth, surprisingly solid legs, free of hair and ripples and veins. Her smooth concave belly that never grew. They used no birth protection but nothing ever happened. That was fine. Britt never mentioned children. And she had never wanted so much as a pet. She had what she wanted. They lived in the house Britt grew up in, only a street away from her old house. It was also a Tudor, laid out almost the same. She changed nothing in it, except to put up blinds in the south-facing windows.
You could say she married Britt for his money, but that wouldn’t be exactly true. She married him for a security for which money was necessary but not sufficient, for a solid feeling of returning to what was rightfully hers. To live any other way would have felt like fraud, and the oddness of him, his lack of friends, the way he was set at an angle to the rest of the world—that was something to return to also. Besides, she felt always profound gratitude for how little he cared, when he learned who her father was. Being morally off himself, he didn’t judge.
There was, at the core of their strange union, a unity. Once, when he and a filmmaking buddy drove past the old Gould house, now with so many trees removed, more visible to the street than before, and spreading impressively high and wide on the rise, the buddy gestured at it with his thumb: “Guy who used to own that chiseled millions, story made the Wall Street Journal.” Not realizing that he was speaking to the son-in-law of the late villain himself. When Britt reported this to Allison, there was a certain surge in his voice, a jocularity he could not tamp, not all the way, that spoke of a joy he should not have felt. All the same, the fact that he told her suggested a kind of loyalty, a loyalty she cherished more than love.
But the loyalty is gone. Now there is nothing. She knew it the second Brandi asked her that question. She knew even before that, the minute she saw Brandi, and the way Brandi’s eyes assessed her in such a proprietary way, a rival sizing up the competition.
Allison’s tea is cold. She is still in her workout clothes and running shoes. She took her four-mile walk up and down the hills this morning, same as she does every morning. The usual joggers and mothers pushing three-wheeled strollers saw her and waved. There are fewer exercisers out on weekends than during the week, but still, enough of the regulars saw her to testify if there are police inquiries. She doubts there will be, anyway. This isn’t Law & Order. This is Mission Hills. With the emergency room visit two months ago, and Britt’s physical condition and family medical history, no one will question the obvious scenario.
Allison assumes Britt and Brandi have had sex. Or tried. She’s read that coke renders the dick nonfunctional. As for Allison and Britt, not a thing has happened in a long time. Before that, things had dried up to once every several months or so—after all, they’d been married ten years—but he hasn’t made a move toward her in ages.
The question is: would Britt leave Allison, his wife of a decade, for a heavily padded, lightly educated fat girl from Raytown, or wherever she’s from? It’s hard to imagine. He has a class thing as much as Allison does. There are reasons why Britt was a forty-one-year-old bachelor when they met. He is passive and lacking initiative. He favors routine, dislikes change. Still, she can’t take the chance. Not when that girl would snatch him up in a second.
The hands of the sunburst clock on the wall hitch at every five-minute mark. The lilac-print wallpaper behind the breakfront is faded from decades of eastern sun, but that is part of its charm. She doesn’t understand her neighbors’ constant need to renovate and redecorate. She chalks it up to boredom. She and Britt never have guests; no one sees the wallpaper. Even if they did, what does it matter what people think?
She will wait one more hour. At two o’clock she will walk upstairs and into the mint-green guest room. She doesn’t think it likely that he’ll be alive. Whatever she finds, she will dial 911. They will take him away. As for her, she will never be moved from this house.
GRACE SUH is a writer and editor who lives in Kansas City. Her work has received awards from the Overbrook Foundation, the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the Ucross Foundation.
Posted: May 29, 2013
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