Only a doll, Alva! Like you.
That’s what they told her. Their voices were a single voice.
She was very young then. It had to be 1974 because she was in second grade at Buhr Elementary School, which was the faded-red-brick building set back from the busy street; she has forgotten the name of the street and much of her life at that time, but she remembers the school, she remembers a teacher who was kind to her, she remembers Rock Basin Park, where the child was smothered.
This was in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. A long time ago.
Can’t sleep. Can’t breathe. Hurriedly dresses, leaves for the Arts College. On the bus her head rattles. A man is peering at her from behind a raised newspaper, eyes she feels crawling on her, disrobing her, poking fingers, prying open. Cunt is a nasty word she’d first heard at the faded-red-brick school long ago. No idea what it meant. No idea why the older boys laughed. No idea why she ran away to hide her face. No idea why her teacher spoke so carefully to her. Alva, have you been hurt? Alva, have you been touched? Holding out her left arm where the purplish-yellow bruise had blossomed in the night.
Alva pulls the cord. Next stop! Can’t breathe in the crowded bus. Eyes crawling over her like lice. She has disguised herself in swaths of muslin, like a nun, like a Muslim woman, wrappings of saffron material, mist-colored, soiled-white. And her waist-long hair that needs washing, spilling from a makeshift velvet cowl.
Alva’s long narrow bony feet. In need of washing.
Venus de Milo, it’s been said of Alva, unclothed.
Botticelli Venus, in a voice of (male) marveling.
Tells herself, she is 1,200 miles from Rock Basin Park. She is thirty-seven years old, not seven.
Thirty-seven, Alva? You must be joking.
Alva doesn’t joke. Taking cues from others, Alva is able to laugh on cue—a high-pitched, little-girl, startled sound like glass breaking—but doesn’t understand the logic of jokes.
Alva sometimes laughs if (somehow) she’s tickled. Breasts and abdomen palpated by an examining gynecologist at the Free Clinic, “echo” exam where the technician moves a device around, and around, and pushes into, the thinly flesh-cushioned bone protecting the heart.
Yet why is it, you can’t tickle yourself? Alva wonders.
Sometimes even in mirrors, nobody’s there.
Can’t be more than, what—twenty-five?
Alva won’t contest the point. Alva doesn’t lie, but if people, predominately men, wish to believe that she’s younger than her age, as young as she appears, Alva won’t protest.
The transparent tape they’d wrapped around her head, over her face, to smother her, to shut her mouth and eyes, shut her terrified screams inside, Alva hadn’t protested. Too exhausted, when finally the tape was torn off.
Tearing off eyelashes, much of her eyebrows, clumps of hair.
Hadn’t protested. Never told. Who to tell?
Alva has learned: to modulate her voice like wind chimes, to smell like scented candles, to shake her long streaked-blond hair like a knotted waterfall past her slender shoulders. Her smile is shyly trusting. Her eyes are warm-melting caramel. Men have fallen in love with that smile. Men have fallen in love with those eyes. The exotic layers of cloth Alva wraps herself in, gauze, see-through, thin muslins, sometimes sprinkled with gold dust. An unexpected glimpse of Alva’s bare flesh (is she naked, beneath?) inside the swaths of fabric, midriff, inside of a forearm, creamy-translucent breast.
Men follow Alva. Alva knows to hide.
Almost, she can see the man’s face.
A perspiring face, red-flushed face, furious eyes.
Never tell! What we did to her, we’ll do to you.
For a long time she forgot. Now, she’s remembering. Why?
She’s 1,200 miles from Rock Basin Park and Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Has not returned in many years. Maybe the man who claimed to be her father has died. Maybe it’s her mother who continues to send checks, whose signature Alva avoids looking at.
Guilt money, this is. But Alva needs money.
Lately, she can think of nothing else except Only a doll, Alva. Like you. Can’t sleep, can’t breathe. These terrible days of early warm spring when everyone else walks in the sunshine coatless and smiling. Airborne pollen, maple seeds madly swirling in the wind, a rich stupefying scent of lilac.
Lilac! In Rock Basin Park. Where she ran. Where she hid. Maybe he’d crushed her face in it: lilac. If not Alva’s face, the other girl’s.
Alva has never had a child. Alva has never been pregnant.
Men have tried to make Alva pregnant. Many times.
Children frighten Alva; she looks quickly away from them. If by accident she glances into a stroller, a baby buggy, a crib, quickly she turns her gaze aside.
It’s just a doll, Alva. Like you.
Amnesia is a desert of fine white sun-glaring sand to the horizon. Amnesia isn’t oblivion. Amnesia is almost-remembering. Amnesia is the torment of almost-remembering. Amnesia is the dream from which you have only just awakened, hovering out of reach below the surface of bright rippling water. Amnesia is the paralyzed limb into which one day, one hour, feeling may begin suddenly to flow.
This Alva fears. Amnesia has been peace, bliss. Waking will be pain.
Alva dear is something wrong, Alva tell me please?
… know you can trust me, Alva? Don’t you?
Alva is childlike and trusting, but in fact Alva is not childlike and not trusting. Alva certainly isn’t one to tell. Not any man, of the many who’ve befriended her.
Teachers. Social workers. Psychologists. Therapists. Older men eager to help Alva, who so mysteriously seems unable to help herself. Some secret in your life, Alva? That has held you back, kept you from fulfilling your promise.
This is true. This is true! Alva knows. Long ago she was a “promising” young dancer. She has been “promising” as a student, a singer, an actress. “Promising” as a spiritual being, and “promising” as an artist/sculptor/jeweler. Alva’s most ambitious project was stringing together glass beads—hundreds, thousands of beads!—into exotic “Indian” necklaces and bracelets sold at a crafts fair in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Alva has received payment for intermittent work in Christian campus groups, feminist centers, Buddhist centers, organic food co-ops, neighborhood medical clinics. She has worked in photo shops, frame shops. She has passed out flyers on street corners. She has worked in cafeterias. She has waitressed. She has been a model.
Alva never accepts money. On principle.
Alva will accept money sometimes. Only if necessary.
If desperate, Alva will accept: meals, winter clothing, places to stay. (Alva never stays in one place for long. Alva slips away without saying good-bye.)
Like exotic glass beads, Alva’s life. But there is no one to string the glass beads together.
Men who’ve loved Alva have asked, What is it, a curse, a jinx, something in your childhood? Who are your parents? Where are you from? Are you close to your mother, your father … ?
Alva is mute. Alva’s head is wrapped in transparent tape. Alva’s screams are shut up inside.
Alva removes the envelope from the post office box. Opens it, tosses aside the accompanying letter, keeps only the check made out to Alva Lucille Ulrich. Guilt money, this is. But Alva needs money.
Alva needs her medications. Alva has qualified for public health assistance, but still Alva must pay a minimal fee, usually ten dollars, for her meds.
Alva takes only prescription drugs. Alva has been clean for years.
You saw nothing. You are a very bad little girl.
Hiding in plain view. Nude model. The girl who’d been morbidly shy in school. Calmly removing her layers of exotic fabric, kicking off her sandals, slipping into a plain cotton robe to enter the life studies room. Taking her place at the center of staring strangers at whom she never looks.
The instructor, usually male. Staring at Alva, too. At whom Alva never looks.
Venus de Milo, it’s been remarked of Alva. Botticelli Venus. Alva scarcely hears what is said of her at such times, for it isn’t said of her but of her body.
Alva prefers large urban university campuses. Alva prefers academic art departments, not freelance artists or photographers.
Alva is an artist’s model. Alva is not available for porn—“erotic art.” Alva is not sexual.
Saw nothing. Bad girl.
It’s early May. It’s a sprawling university campus close by the Mississippi River. Far from Rock Basin Park. Far from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.
Early May, too warm. Even Alva, naked, is warm. Students have shoved windows up as high as they can in the third-floor room in the old building on University Avenue. Alva has been sleepless, Alva has had difficulty breathing. Alva is uneasy, these windows open to the sky. There are noises from the busy street outside, but still there is airborne pollen, swirling maple seeds, a smell of lilac from somewhere on campus.
Alva shudders. Alva stares into a corner of the ceiling. Alva holds herself so very still seated on the swath of velvet draped over a chair, Alva doesn’t appear to be breathing.
The child! In a soiled pink eyelet nightgown smelling of her panicked body. Eyes open and staring, sightless. Where the hand has clamped there is the reddened impress of fingers in the ivory skin. A bubble of saliva tinged with blood glistens at the small bruised mouth. They are wrapping her in the blanket that had been Alva’s. They are wrapping her tight so that if she comes awake, if she comes alive again, she won’t be able to kick and struggle. At dusk they will drive to Rock Basin Park, they will abandon her in a desolate place where there are no footpaths and lilac is growing wild.
* * *
Phone rang. Friday evening. Believing it to be a friend, she lifted the receiver without checking the ID.
The voice was a stranger’s. Low-pitched, somehow insinuating.
Here was the wrong note. To her students and younger colleagues at the institute she was Dr. Ulrich. To friends and acquaintances, Lydia. No one called her Mrs. Ulrich any longer. No one who knew her.
She felt a stab of apprehension. Even as she tensed, she spoke warmly and easily into the phone: “Yes, who is it?”
By the age of sixty-three she’d acquired a social personality that was warm, easy, welcoming. You might call it a maternal personality. You would not wish to call it a manipulative personality. She was a professional woman of several decades. Her current position was director of a psychology research institute at George Mason University. She’d been a professor at the university for eighteen years, much admired for her collegiality and ease with students. Her deepest self, brooding and still as dark water at the bottom of a deep well, was very different.
“… of the Upper Darby Police Department. I have a few questions to ask you, preferably in person.”
Upper Darby! She’d moved away nearly twenty-five years ago.
Lydia, her husband Hans, and their young daughter Alva.
Her friendships of that time, when she’d been an anxious young wife and mother, had long since faded. Her husband had had professional ties in the Philadelphia area, but long ago.
“But—why? What do you have to ask me?”
“Your husband is deceased, Mrs. Ulrich? Is that correct?”
This was correct. Hans had died in 2000. Already five years had passed. For seven years in all, Lydia and Hans had not been living together. They had not divorced or even formally separated because Hans had not believed in any outward acknowledgment of failure on his part.
The detective, whose name Lydia hadn’t quite heard, was asking if he and an associate could come to her residence in Bethesda to speak with her the following day, at about 2 P.M. They would drive from Upper Darby for an interview of possibly forty minutes or an hour.
The next day was Saturday. This was to have been a day of solitude. When she needn’t be Dr. Ulrich. In the evening she was going out with a friend; through the long hours of the day she intended to work, with an afternoon break for a long, vigorous walk. As a professional woman she had learned to hoard her privacy, her aloneness, while giving the impression, in public, of being warmly open and available.
It was difficult to keep the edge out of her voice: “Why must it be in person? Can’t we speak over the phone?”
“Mrs. Ulrich, we prefer not on the phone.”
Again Mrs. Ulrich. Spoken with an insinuating authority. As if the police officer knew Mrs. Ulrich intimately, it was Mrs. Ulrich he wanted.
In this way Lydia understood: the subject of the inquiry would be family. Whatever it was, it would have nothing to do with her professional identity and reputation.
She could not avoid asking this question, with dread: “Is this—about my daughter?”
Lydia strained to hear, behind the detective’s low-pitched voice, background voices, muffled sound. The man was calling from Upper Darby police headquarters. His intrusion into her life, into the solitude and privacy of her apartment (a tenth-floor condominium overlooking a shimmering green oasis of parkland), was impersonal, as if random. He didn’t know her, had no care of her. He was pursuing a goal that had nothing to do with her. And of course it couldn’t be random, but calculated. He’d acquired her (unlisted) home telephone number in Bethesda, Maryland. He knew about Hans’s death. This meant he probably knew other facts about her. That he might know facts about Lydia Ulrich she didn’t know about herself caused her to feel dizzy suddenly, as if a net were being closed around her.
The detective hadn’t said yes, nor had he said no. Was this call about Alva?
“Is Alva in trouble? Is she—ill?”
Has she been arrested, is she in police custody, has she overdosed on a drug, is she in a hospital, is she . . .
Since answering the phone, Lydia had been placating herself with the thought that, so far as she knew, Alva was in Illinois, not Pennsylvania. Since they’d moved from Upper Darby, Alva had never been back. Lydia was sure.
The detective whose name Lydia hadn’t caught was telling her, in a voice that didn’t sound friendly, that their daughter was not ill, so far as he knew. But the subject of his inquiry had to do with her, Alva Ulrich, as a possible witness in a criminal investigation.
Criminal investigation! Lydia’s heart stopped.
It would be drugs. Since the age of fourteen Alva had been involved with drugs. Like malaria, the disease persisted. Lydia jammed her fist against her mouth. The detective’s words had struck her like an arrow. Damned if she would cry out in pain.
No doubt, many more times than her parents knew, Alva had been arrested for drug possession. She’d been taken into police custody, briefly jailed, discharged to rehab, discharged “clean.” Drifting on then to the next state, another sprawling university campus. Another improvised fringe life, in pursuit of some sort of artistic career . . . The last time, a call jarring as this had come from a stranger, years ago when she and Hans had been living in Georgetown, their thirty-year-old daughter from whom they’d long been estranged had been hospitalized in East Lansing, Michigan, after a drug overdose. She’d been comatose, near death. Dumped by her druggie friends on the pavement outside the ER, one night in winter 1997.
Immediately, Lydia had flown to East Lansing. Hans had refused to accompany her.
The detective was asking wasn’t Lydia in contact with her daughter? Lydia wondered if the question wasn’t a trick, for already he knew the answer, from Alva. Quickly Lydia said yes, of course she was in contact with her daughter: “Alva is an art student, a painter, at . . .” But was it Illinois State University at Carbondale or Springfield? Alva had provided Lydia with post office box numbers in both cities recently. “I just wrote to her, about two weeks ago. I sent her a check, as I often do, and she seems to have cashed it. Please tell me if something has happened to my daughter . . .”
“When is the last time you spoke with her, Mrs. Ulrich?”
Lydia could not answer. She was being humiliated, eviscerated.
Yet the stranger at the other end of the line continued, with a pretense of solicitude. Asking hadn’t Lydia a street address for her daughter, either?—so Lydia was forced to admit no, “Just a post office box; it’s been that way since she left home. Alva has wanted her privacy. She’s an artist . . .”
Lydia’s voice was weak now, faltering. Not the self-assured voice of Dr. Lydia Ulrich, director of the Pratt Institute for Research in Cognitive and Social Psychology at George Mason University, but the broken, defeated, bewildered voice of Hans Ulrich’s wife.
“ … Springfield, is it? Alva is studying art there . . .”
The detective murmured something ambiguous. Maybe yes, maybe no.
“… don’t seem to have her street address, officer. Maybe, if you know it, you could tell me?”
“Sorry, Mrs. Ulrich. Your daughter has requested that we not inform you of her exact location at this time.”
“Oh. I see.”
This hurt. This was unmistakable. An insult. Shame.
Not my fault. How is it my fault! I tried to love her. I do love her.
Now Lydia was broken, defeated. Quickly now she gave in. Of course the detectives could come to see her, next day. The net was tightening, her breath came short. Before they hung up Lydia heard herself ask, “If a—a crime has been committed—Alva isn’t in danger, is she? Alva is being protected—is she?”
The detective’s answer was terse, enigmatic; she would ponder its meaning through much of the night: “At the present time, ma’am, it appears, yes, she is.”
Of course, Alva was in Carbondale, not Springfield! Lydia knew this.
A few minutes after her conversation with the Upper Darby detective, she realized.
She would cancel her plans for the weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday. She knew, seemed to know, the Upper Darby detectives would not be bringing her good news.
“My daughter. Alva. Something has happened. She has become involved in a ‘criminal case’ out in Illinois, I think. She’s a ‘witness’ . . .”
Witness to what? Lydia shuddered to think.
She was rehearsing what she would say, telephoning friends. To cancel their plans for dinner, a play. To explain her state of mind. (Agitated, anxious.) In the turbulent years of her marriage to a demanding and difficult man, Lydia hadn’t time for the cultivation of friends, but now her life was spacious and aerated as a cloudless sky, she’d acquired a circle of remarkable friends. Most of them were women her age, divorcees, widows. A few remained married. Their children were grown and gone. All were professional women nearing retirement age but, like Lydia, in no hurry to retire. They did not wish to speak of it.
Not yet! Not yet! The women clung to their work, at which they excelled, with a maternal possessiveness.
Their children had not only grown and gone but in some cases had disappeared. Like Alva, they were of the legion of walking wounded, drifting into a drug culture as into a vast American inland sea. The women did not speak of these children except in rare, raw moments. Lydia’s friends knew about Alva, and knew not to ask after Alva. The son of Lydia’s closest friend had committed suicide several years ago in a particularly gruesome way; only Lydia knew among their circle of friends. But never spoke of it.
The women had come to these friendships late in life, but not too late. Theirs was the most precious sisterhood: no blood ties between them.
Genes are the cards we’re all dealt. What we do with the cards is our lives.
This was a remark of Hans Ulrich’s, frequently cited in intellectual journals.
“I tried. I have never given up on . . .”
He had given up. The father.
And how painful for Lydia to realize that, long after Hans had coolly detached himself from their daughter, refusing even to hear from Lydia what Alva’s latest problems, crises, predicaments were, Alva still preferred him to Lydia: the powerful elusive father.
Seductive even when elusive. Especially when absent.
“But where is Daddy, why isn’t Daddy with you? Are you keeping Daddy from me? Are you lying to Daddy about me? Does Daddy know that I almost died? I don’t want you here, I want Daddy. I don’t trust you, I hate you.”
It was a child’s accusation. Hateful, unthinking, intended purely to hurt.
In the hospital in East Lansing, at Alva’s bedside, Lydia had tried to disguise her horror, seeing her daughter so haggard and sallow-skinned, her eyes bloodshot, sunk deep into their sockets. Alva had been too weak to sit up, to eat solids, to speak except in a low hoarse broken voice, almost inaudible and terrible to hear. Lydia wanted to believe it was Alva’s sickness that spoke, not Alva. For how could Alva hate her!
“Darling, I’m your mother. I love you, I’m here to help you . . .”
“You’re wrong. You’re stupid. It’s Daddy I trust. His judgment.”
Lydia was stunned. Thinking, Even in her sickness, she knows.
Not Lydia’s judgment but Hans’s judgment was to be trusted. Hans’s moral repugnance at what he called the slow train wreck of their daughter’s life. Not a mother’s unconditional love and forgiveness the wounded daughter craved but a father’s righteous fury, unforgiving.
You disgust me. You and your kind. If your mother can stomach you, good for her. Not me.
Hans had refused to come with Lydia to East Lansing, and he would refuse to discuss the arrangements Lydia made for Alva to be admitted to a drug rehabilitation clinic after her discharge from the hospital. He was departing for Europe. Medical conferences in Berlin, Rome. Hans Ulrich was a consultant to the UN and would be named to the president’s advisory board on matters of health and public welfare. His life was a worldly one; he’d become one of the preeminent epidemiologists of his generation. Not the effluvia of family life but the grandeur of public life would define him. Not fatherhood, not marriage. Not love, but professional achievement and renown. Hans was a man who, when he died (prematurely, aged sixty-one, of cardiac arrest, thousands of miles from Lydia), would be eulogized in prominent obituaries for his “seminal” work in this crucial field. Survived by wife; daughter was the perfunctory afterthought.
In the hospital in East Lansing, at her daughter’s bedside, Lydia had seemed finally to understand. It had to be a fact others knew, to which Lydia had come late: to love unconditionally is fraudulent, a lie. There is a time for love, and there is a time for the repudiation of love. Yet Lydia protested, “I can’t change my love for you, Alva, even if . . .”
Even if you don’t love me.
Alva grimaced and shut her eyes. A shudder passed over her thin body. She could not have weighed more than ninety pounds. Her skin looked jaundiced but was coolly clammy to the touch. An IV tube drained liquid into her bruised forearm. The hair that had been a beautiful ashy blond through Alva’s girlhood was coarse, matted, threaded now with silver like glinting wires. A sour odor lifted from her that Lydia would carry away from the hospital in her clothing, her hair. She thought this must be the odor of dissolution, impending death.
She returned to her hotel room. She showered, washed her hair. She left a message for Hans with his assistant. You must try to come! Our daughter may be dying.
But Alva had not died. Another time, Alva recovered.
So quickly, one day she checked out of the hospital and eluded her mother. It was a bleakly comic scene Lydia would long recall: her astonishment at Alva’s vacated bed, her naive query put to one of the floor nurses, “But—didn’t my daughter leave any word for me?”
No word. Only the hospital bill.
A considerable bill, for eight full days.
That had been the last time Lydia had seen her daughter or spoken with her. Terrible to realize, when the detective from Upper Darby called her, it had been more than seven years.
Seven years. A child’s lifetime.
Genes are the cards we’re all dealt. What we do with the cards is our lives.
Hans Ulrich was denounced in some circles as cold, unfeeling, a statistician and not a medical man. In other circles, politically conservative, he was honored as a seer.
In fact it had been more than seven years that Lydia had been sending checks to Alva in care of post office boxes in the Midwest. After dropping out of college for the third and final time, Alva had drifted westward to Ohio, Indiana, Iowa. To Michigan, Minnesota. To Missouri. To Illinois. Impossible to determine if Alva traveled alone or with others; if she acquired, in her itinerant life, some sort of family; if she’d even married, and if so, if she’d remained with her husband or drifted away from him as she’d drifted away from her parents. Lydia sent checks, and Alva cashed them. At the outset, she and Hans were still living together in Georgetown, where both had academic appointments; Hans disapproved but never interfered, so long as the money Lydia sent was clearly her own, from her salary. With the checks Lydia never failed to enclose a handwritten letter or card. She would wish one day that she’d kept a record of these, as a kind of journal or diary of her own life, the crucial facts of her life offered to her daughter in a relentlessly upbeat tone, for words are the easiest of deceits, so long as they aren’t spoken aloud. To write a thing is to make it true, Lydia thought.
Alva rarely replied to Lydia’s letters, except from time to time to notify her of another change of address, on the printed form provided by the post office. But Alva never failed to cash the checks.
“She reads my letters, at least. That’s how we keep in touch.”
This had to be so. Lydia would explain to the prying detectives.
“Not an interrogation, Mrs. Ulrich. An interview.”
Mrs. Ulrich. The wife, the mother. She was their subject.
Lydia’s nervous offer of coffee? tea? soda? was politely declined. A woman whose home is entered, a woman who can’t provide some gesture of hospitality, is a woman disoriented, disadvantaged like one suffering from that infection of the inner ear that determines our ability to keep our balance.
Lydia’s offer of a smile was politely declined.
Their names were Hahn and Panov. Lydia stared at the cards handed to her. Already she had forgotten which man was which.
Hahn, Panov. Was Hahn the elder? He led the interview.
“… won’t mind, will you, if we tape this . . .”
Lydia invited them to sit down. It must have been choreographed; the detectives took seats in chairs facing her but at a little distance from each other. Lydia would glance at one of the men, and at the other; back to the first, and again the other. While Hahn questioned her, Panov studied her in profile.
Alva was in danger, Lydia thought. It had to be drug-related, and it had to be a serious crime.
How she, the mother, was connected, Lydia could not imagine.
Wanting to cry, Please tell me! Don’t torment me.
It was unnerving to think that these strangers glancing about casually at Lydia’s attractive living room flooded with May sunshine, making no comment on it as other visitors would naturally have done, seemingly not very impressed, knew something about Alva, and something about Lydia, that Lydia didn’t know.
Unnerving to think that these men, who’d driven from the Philadelphia area to Bethesda to speak with Lydia, had flown to Carbondale, Illinois, to speak with Alva.
Yet more unnerving, Alva had been the one to contact the detectives. Alva who feared and despised figures of authority like police, social welfare officials, judges!
Lydia was told that her daughter had been encouraged to contact the Upper Darby Police Department by a therapist whom she’d been seeing, as well as a faculty member at the state university, because in recent weeks she had been haunted by memories of having witnessed a violent crime as a child. Alva had come to believe that she had crucial information to offer police, to aid in the investigation of a homicide of 1974 that had recently been reopened by Upper Darby police.
Homicide! Lydia was astonished.
“This can’t be. Alva couldn’t have been more than seven at that time . . .”
Not drugs? Not Illinois?
Lydia smiled nervously. Looking from Hahn to Panov, from Panov to Hahn, thinking this had to be a misunderstanding. Surely not a joke?
Alva had never been one to joke. You couldn’t reason with Alva by speaking playfully. Couldn’t coax her, even as a little girl, out of a mood by making her laugh because Alva couldn’t be made to laugh. Instead, Alva would stare at you. Blankly.
So the detectives regarded Lydia, not exactly blankly but with professional detachment, a kind of clinical curiosity. They were seeing a sixty-three-year-old woman who looked much younger than her age, a widow, a professional woman, obviously educated and well-spoken and not the Mrs. Ulrich they might have expected, having first met her daughter.
They were seeing a woman who needed to be assured her daughter wasn’t ill, wasn’t in danger.
“… for some reason I have only a post office address for Alva in Carbondale. I would so appreciate it, if you could give me her street address before you leave.”
A reasonable voice. Not exactly begging. A mother concerned for her child, though the child is thirty-seven.
“She moves so often, that’s why I seem to have lost . . .”
Lydia had forgotten she’d been told that Alva didn’t want her to know her street address. You’d have thought she had forgotten.
Neither Hahn nor Panov acknowledged her remark. Lydia wanted to think, They’re being kind, they feel sorry for me. They are on my side.
So you yearn to think when investigators enter your home.
The detectives would have recognized Alva at once: one of the walking wounded, casualties of the drug culture. Young people whose early promise had been destroyed by drugs as by a virulent disease.
They would recognize Lydia, the brave left-behind mother.
“… a witness, you say? Alva? As a child of . . .”
Lydia spoke respectfully of her daughter though also skeptically. She would not suggest that her daughter had to be fantasizing, as so often, through the years, Alva had done.
Hahn was telling Lydia that the newly reopened case was a notorious one: “Pink Bunny Baby.” Did she remember it?
A very young child, believed to be about two, had been found dead in a remote area of Rock Basin Park. She’d been tightly swaddled in a blanket, bruised but not visibly injured, having been smothered to death. The little girl wore an article of clothing with pink bunnies on it, and so in the media she was the Pink Bunny Baby. A police sketch of her doll-like face as it must have been before her death had been replicated many thousands of times in the press, for weeks, months.
Pink Bunny Baby had never been identified. Her murderer or murderers had never been identified.
Lydia was stunned. Whatever she’d been expecting, it could not have been this.
“Of course I remember. That nightmare. We lived only a few miles from Rock Basin Park. Alva was in second grade at the time. We tried to shield her from . . .”
It came back to Lydia, the clutch of fear she’d felt then. A mother’s fear that something terrible might happen to her child.
When your child is an infant, you’re in terror that somehow she will die, simply cease breathing, you must check her constantly, compulsively. When she’s older and often out of your sight, you worry that a madman might steal her away.
Though it was widely believed that Pink Bunny Baby had been killed by a parent or parents, not a roving madman.
For who else would wish to kill a child so young, except a deranged parent? That was the nightmare.
Lydia spoke slowly at first, with a kind of recalled dread. By degrees she began speaking more rapidly, as if a mechanism had been sprung in her brain.
“… for months, every day it was ‘Pink Bunny Baby’ in newspapers, on TV. There were flyers and posters. Everyone spoke of it. You couldn’t escape it. We censored everything that came into the house, and we never let Alva watch TV alone, but still she was badly frightened by older children at school. She was a high-strung, nervous child. Extremely intelligent, with a talent for drawing and music, but too restless to sit still for more than a few minutes. Today she would be diagnosed as ‘ADD,’ but in the 1970s no one had identified ‘attention deficit disorder,’ and the only medication for hyperactive children would have been tranquilizers. We took Alva—that is, I took her—to pediatricians, child psychiatrists, neurologists. Hans was outraged when she was diagnosed as ‘borderline autistic’—we knew this couldn’t be accurate. Alva was a bright, communicative, verbal child who could look you in the eye when she wanted to. Even before the child’s body was found she’d had nightmares, and these got worse. She did astonishing crayon drawings of the ‘little pink baby’ she called her baby sister. She begged us to let her sleep with us at night—but she was too old, Hans insisted. She begged us to take her to the place where Pink Bunny Baby was found.”
Words spilled from Lydia, leaving her breathless. The detectives listened without commentary and without the usual encouraging smiles and head signals that accompany conversation.
This wasn’t a conversation, of course. This was an interview.
The elder detective asked, “And did you take your daughter to the park, Mrs. Ulrich?”
“Of course not! You can’t be serious.”
“Did your husband take her?”
“Neither of you, ever, alone or together, took your daughter to Rock Basin Park?”
Lydia looked from one detective to the other. Hahn, Panov.
She was confused, she was speaking incoherently. Wanting to plead with them, What did my daughter see? What has she told you about me?
“Well, yes. Before the child’s body was found. But not to that terrible place.”
“You knew where the ‘place’ was, then? You were familiar with that part of the park?”
Lydia hesitated. It had been so long: thirty years. “Only just from the newspaper. There were countless stories, photographs of the park. Even maps.”
“How long did you live in Upper Darby, Mrs. Ulrich?”
“Five years. Hans had an academic appointment at …”
“In all those years you’d never been to that part of Rock Basin Park where the child was found? Yet you could recognize it from the newspaper?”
Lydia tried not to speak sharply. Knowing, as an administrator, that a sudden break in civility, a breach in decorum, can never really be amended. “Yes, probably we’d been there. It was a hiking area, wasn’t it? A very beautiful part of Rock Basin Park, a stony creek, wild-growing lilac, wood-chip paths through a pine forest, massive outcroppings of granite . . . When I took Alva to the park by myself, which was most of the time, while Hans was working, we kept to the playground area, where there were other children, but when Hans was with us, on Sundays usually, he wanted to hike along the creek. Once, when Alva was about four, very bright and precocious, she slipped away from Hans and me, and we’d thought she was lost, or abducted, we were searching for her everywhere, calling for her, terrified she might have drowned in the creek, but it turned out that Alva was only just hiding from us, a kind of demon got into her sometimes, she was hiding from us inside a hedge of lilac, she was feverish-looking, giggling at us, and when Hans caught up with her he was furious, lost control and grabbed Alva by the shoulders and shook her hard, like a rag doll, shouted into her face, she was paralyzed with fear, I wasn’t able to stop Hans in time, I think . . .” Lydia paused, trembling. She had never told anyone this. She had never entirely acknowledged this. Between Hans and her there had been patches of blank, lacunae to which no language accrued, therefore no knowledge. Perhaps Hans had hurt Alva; the child was white-faced with terror, mute. That Daddy had turned on her, Daddy whom she adored. And the truth was, Lydia hadn’t dared intervene, she’d been frightened of Hans herself. Wondering afterward if Alva had known how her mother had failed her at that crucial moment. “I tried to hold her, comfort her, but . . . Ever afterward, if I took Alva to the park, to the playground area, she was anxious, frightened. She began to have a thing about dolls, not her own dolls, Alva hadn’t wanted dolls, but dolls left behind in the playground, lost and broken dolls, she was fascinated by them and frightened, ‘Look at the baby, look at the baby.’ She’d laugh, hide her mouth with her hand as if there was something naughty, something obscene, about the doll, or about seeing it, and I would say, ‘Alva, it’s only a doll, you know what a doll is, Alva, don’t be silly, it’s only a doll.’ And this went on for years.” Lydia paused, not liking her anxious, eager voice. She stared at the tape recorder. The slow-turning cassette inside. What was she revealing, to strangers, that could never be retracted! “But none of this has anything to do with the little girl found in the park in 1974. This happened years before. Alva was seven when the child was found. She was in second grade at Buhr Elementary. As I said, she became morbidly fascinated with ‘Pink Bunny Baby.’ At this time, Hans began traveling often. He’s a—he was a—prominent scientist, and ambitious. When he was away, Alva became particularly anxious. It was ‘Daddy’—‘Daddy’—‘Where is Daddy, is Daddy coming back?’ As if Alva could foresee, many years later, that Daddy would leave us—leave me. Of course, Hans was flattered by our daughter’s fixation on him, but he couldn’t tolerate any sort of household upset. Emotions have very little to do with science, I mean with the methods of science. If you’re a psychologist, like me, you might study emotions—but not in an emotional way. As I grew out of being a mother, I grew into being a scientist. But not a scientist like Hans Ulrich. Not of his originality, genius. Not of his stature. Hans was a quintessential male scientist—he needed a domestic household, he needed a wife who was in no way a rival. He’d been born in Frankfurt, he was contemptuous of the ways in which Americans spoil their children. Not all Americans—just the affluent, the privileged. He hadn’t been a child of privilege, and he didn’t want a child of his to be one, either. So he wasn’t the sort of father to indulge a child so imaginative and headstrong and sensitive as Alva. He believed that she was exaggerating her fears—her nightmares—to manipulate us. Especially Daddy. I found it hard to discipline Alva, even to scold her. Like tossing a lighted match onto flammable material! I was afraid my daughter wouldn’t love me. Maybe Hans was right, I wasn’t a good mother, something went terribly wrong. Already in middle school she began to grow away from us, and in high school the drugs began. So Alva left me, anyway. Whatever I did, it must have been a mistake.”
Lydia paused. She was breathless, agitated. Yet awaiting assurance—Of course you aren’t to blame, how wrong you are to blame yourself, obviously your daughter has a biochemical imbalance, you are wrong to blame yourself, Mrs. Ulrich!—but the detectives from Upper Darby, PA, allowed the moment to pass.
Is it a cliché of speech, a sinking heart? Yet Lydia felt a sinking sensation in her chest at this moment. They aren’t kind men. They don’t feel sorry for me. They are not on my side.
Now the interview must conclude, for Lydia had told the detectives all she knew.
“Mrs. Ulrich, your daughter was adopted, yes?”
“No, Alva isn’t adopted. I’m sorry.”
Sorry my daughter misled you. Sorry a daughter wishes not to be a daughter.
She went away to bring the birth certificate to show the detectives. Moving stiffly like one with knee or spinal pain. Moving stiffly like an elderly woman.
The detectives studied the document without comment. Alva Lucille Ulrich. Parents Lydia Moore Ulrich, Hans Stefan Ulrich. The certificate had been signed by an obstetrician at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 19, 1968.
“… a common fantasy, adoption. In imaginative children. It isn’t considered pathological unless carried to extremes. Just a fantasy, a kind of comfort. That you’ve been adopted, your real parents are . . .”
Somewhere else. Someone else.
Lydia recalled the birth pains. Excruciating labor that had lasted nearly ten hours. She had wanted, she’d thought, a natural childbirth, what’s called, bluntly, “vaginal.” Her obstetrician and her husband had not thought this a very good idea. And so it had not been a very good idea.
In the end, Lydia had had a C-section. An ugly razor-scar in the pit of her now sagging belly she might show to the detectives if they were skeptical of her credentials as a biological mother.
“Alva had asked if she’d been adopted. We told her no. Yet the fantasy persisted. Except, as an adult, she should have grown out of it.”
They were asking Lydia if she’d adopted another child. A younger child. Or had she had another child, younger than Alva.
A younger sister to Alva. Who had died.
“No. I did not.”
It was bewildering to contemplate the shadow figure who was somehow Mrs. Ulrich, in Alva’s imagination. Mrs. Ulrich whom the detectives were pursuing.
While she, Lydia, recalled through a haze of pain someone bringing her a squirming wet red-faced baby, hers. The astonishment of this baby so naturally in her arms, sucking at her milk-heavy breast. It had seemed to transpire in a dream. The dream could not have been her own, for it was too wonderful for Lydia to have imagined. Out of the massive labor, the exhilaration of the baby, the nursing. The eager young father who’d loved her then.
Detectives’ questions are circular, tricky. Another time Lydia was asked if she’d adopted a child, any child, and Lydia explained no, never. And another time she was asked if she’d had any other children apart from Alva, and she said no. Any other children apart from Alva who had died.
“No. I’m sorry.”
In their marriage it was Lydia who had wanted more children and Hans who had not. All marriages are fairy tales—Once upon a time there was a man and a woman—and the Ulrichs’ tale was of a man who’d pursued a career and a woman who’d delayed her career to be a devoted mother to a difficult daughter who would repudiate her and break her heart. In fact, Lydia hadn’t really wanted another child. She had allowed Hans to think so; in a way it was flattering to Hans to think a woman would wish to have a second child with him after the stresses of the first, perhaps a son this time, to perpetuate the Ulrich name, but truly, in the most secret recesses of her heart, Lydia had not wanted another child, not a son, certainly not another daughter, after the first.
Wishing in secret, in weak moments, If Alva had never been born.
Lydia’s own mother had suggested an abortion, when Lydia was newly pregnant. Before Hans had known. For Lydia and Hans weren’t yet married. They had not even been living together. Hans was finishing his doctorate at Penn, Lydia was only midway in her graduate studies. She was twenty-three. She was a very young twenty-three. She was a brilliant but self-doubting student whose professors had encouraged her to continue, but she’d fallen in love with Hans Ulrich, how difficult not to fall in love with Hans Ulrich, though her mother warned her she was too young to be a mother, she had so much life before her, children might wait, marriage might wait, to another man perhaps, for Hans Ulrich was not a man to give comfort but only to take comfort, and in the spell of sexual enchantment she’d defied her mother, married Hans Ulrich, and had his child.
He had loved her, then. Lydia, and their daughter.
For Alva had been a beautiful child, at first.
The child of Lydia’s destiny. That seemed clear.
Really, Lydia couldn’t imagine her life without Alva. Never!
Very easily, she could imagine her life without Alva. The life she was living now, if you subtracted all thoughts of Alva in the way that, despairing over being able to wash clean a grimy wall, you simply painted it over.
Lydia’s friends who were mothers like herself, some of them grandmothers, never spoke of such things. They spoke of other things but never this. No one dared to acknowledge a lost life, if she had not married and had children exactly as she had. You did not speak of it. You dared not speak of it. In fact, it was pointless to speak of it.
You did not even think of it, with children near. For children hear what is not said, more keenly than what is.
Only a doll, Alva. Like you.
As a research psychologist Dr. Ulrich had tested numberless subjects. She was particularly interested in the relationship between consciousness and the brain: “self-identifying.” There is a magical period of self-recognition in two-year-olds, utterly missing in younger children. To recognize the self (in a mirror, in reflective surfaces, in photographs) is taken for granted in normal individuals. Self-identity resides in a certain region of the brain that, if destroyed, can’t be replaced. The self is in the brain: the soul is in the brain cells. To be an academic scientist is to test hypotheses. You perform experiments, you tally results, you publish papers, by degrees you accumulate a public career. Dr. Ulrich, the psychological tester, was without affect. In her role as tester she smiled cordially, to manipulate and comfort. But no one could read her heart. Subjects are to be manipulated, otherwise there is no experiment and there is no accumulated wisdom. Now the detectives from Upper Darby, PA, were the testers and Dr. Ulrich, seated on an ottoman in her own living room, was the subject. She understood the detectives’ cordial expressions. The steely calculation in their eyes.
To be innocent of wrongdoing is to be vulnerable as one whose skin has been peeled back. To stand so naked, exposed. Every word sounds like an admission of guilt.
But guilt for what, Lydia had no idea.
Forty minutes into the interview—forty minutes! it had seemed like hours—as the detectives were asking her another time to tell them what she could remember of her daughter’s “medical record” as a child living in Upper Darby, the telephone rang. Lydia had intended to remove the receiver from the hook but had forgotten. Now she was grateful for the interruption. This summons to another life.
Within earshot of the detectives she said, in a voice her friend would not have identified as anxious, “Dolores, I’m sorry, I will have to call you back in about twenty minutes.”
Wanting the intruders to hear. Twenty minutes. No more.
Wanting them to hear. My life. My real life. To which you have no access.
It was then they told her.
Why they’d come to speak with her. Why her daughter had called the Upper Darby PD. What claims her daughter was making that involved her and her husband in the smothering death of the unidentified child found in Rock Basin Park.
Stunned, Lydia looked from one detective to the other. Their names were lost to her now. Their faces were blurred as faces reflected in water.
Lydia began to stammer, “I don’t understand—my daughter has accused my husband and me—”
Smothering? Murder? A baby sister? The child in the tightly swaddled blanket, the soiled jumper said to be decorated with a row of pink bunnies?
“… the murder? That murder? The little girl? In Rock Basin Park? My daughter Alva has . . .”
Now the net was tightening around her, she could not breathe. A band tightening around her forehead. She was stammering, trying to speak. To deny, to explain. My daughter is sick. My daughter has blamed me. I don’t know why. But she could not explain. She could not speak. One of the detectives caught her arm, she’d begun to faint. The other went quickly away to bring her a glass of ice water.
Ice water! At such a time, the detective had brought her ice water. Seeing that Lydia had, in her compact kitchen, a refrigerator that dispenses ice cubes.
“… don’t believe this. Can’t . . .”
Afterward she would not recall what they’d said. What they’d said next. She had assured them she was fine, she would not faint. She could hear their voices, though at a distance. She could see them as if through the wrong end of a telescope. Her vision bizarrely narrowed, edged in black. For part of her brain, its visual field, had darkened. My daughter hates me. Blames me. But I am blameless.
Her voice was begging. Her voice was near inaudible.
“Please, I want to speak with her. My daughter. Please . . .”
But she could not speak with her daughter, for her daughter did not wish to speak with her. So it was explained to Mrs. Ulrich, another time.
“… a misunderstanding! My daughter isn’t well. If you’ve spoken with her, you must know. Alva has a history of . . .”
But she could not accuse her daughter, could she!
These men on a mission. Regarding her steely-eyed, assessing.
A sixty-three-year-old woman. A professional woman. Accused of having smothered a child thirty years before. A child who’d possibly been her own daughter. Unless an adopted daughter. Two-year-old younger sister of the seven-year-old daughter. Unless the seven-year-old was also adopted. Unless Mrs. Urlich had not herself smothered the child but had aided and abetted Hans Ulrich. Conspired with Hans Ulrich to commit the murder. Thirty years ago.
“… why? Why now? Why on earth now? I’ve just sent her a check, Alva cashed. For $500. I have the canceled check, I can show you. I’ve saved all the checks. Thousands of dollars. Why would she turn on me? Why now, so long after . . .”
She didn’t want to think, These are men on a mission. Mrs. Ulrich is their prey.
Pink Bunny Baby was a high-profile cold case. Suddenly you read of “cold cases” everywhere in America. As crime rates decline. As old unsolved cases are reactivated. Old detectives, some of them coming back from retirement, are reactivated.
Reinspired. Mrs. Ulrich was in their gun sights.
“… if I could just talk with Alva, if you could arrange for me to speak with her, please! In person . . .”
“Your daughter doesn’t want to speak with you, Mrs. Ulrich. We’ve explained.”
Men with a mission. You could see.
Possibly they pitied her. The trembling sixty-three-year-old woman whose life was shattering around her.
Yet she was in their gun sights, she was their prey. “Mrs. Ulrich.”
They’d driven in pursuit of her this morning from Upper Darby, PA, to Bethesda, MD. As they’d flown, last week, to Carbondale, IL. To interview her accuser. To tape the accuser’s statement.
Her life shattered. Her professional life destroyed. Now she would retire: forced to retire. Even if not arrested, not formally accused. Her photograph in the papers, on TV. Lydia Ulrich. Director of. Questioned by police. Smothering murder, 1974. Two-year-old victim. Body left in park.
Was she arrested? She was not arrested. Not yet.
Should she call a lawyer? That was up to Mrs. Ulrich.
Still her vision was radically diminished: a tunnel rimmed with black. The detectives’ blurred faces at the end of the tunnel. If, one day, you open your eyes and can’t see one side of the room, it’s a brain tumor you have. Tunnel vision, it’s panic.
Panic that your life is being taken from you. Tattered and flapping like flags in the wind.
Body left in park. Believed younger daughter of. Smothered.
The detectives were saying they would play a tape of her daughter’s statement, recorded the previous week in Carbondale. If Mrs. Ulrich wished.
Yes. No. She could not bear it.
She would call a lawyer, she would save herself. As Hans would have fought to save himself.
Her life passing before her eyes, something tattered and torn flapping in the wind. Pitiful.
The detectives were regarding her with pity. Suspicion but also pity. Perhaps they would be kind. Perhaps they did not want to destroy her. In their mission to solve the notorious “cold case”—in their zeal for TV celebrity—they would not want to destroy an innocent sixty-three-year-old woman.
Not arrested. Not arrested. Not yet!
Her heartbeat was rapid but weak. It could not pump enough blood to her brain.
If Hans were here! It was Hans they sought. The smotherer.
If Hans were here, as soon as the detectives entered the apartment, even as he was shaking their hands, he would allow them to know, This is a home, I am the authority here.
As a mother she’d taken the sorrow of her life and transformed it into love for her daughter. By an act of pure will she’d transformed it. Evidently, it hadn’t been enough.
She would explain. She could not explain.
There were no words. Language was being taken from her.
The infant greedily sucking at her breast. Tugging at the raw nipple. Oh! it had hurt, as if the infant girl had teeth. But how lovely, the most sensual experience of Lydia’s life.
A woman’s secret, erotic life. A mother’s life.
Hans had not known. Hans would have been astonished and revulsed if he’d known. But Hans had not known.
“… a tape of your daughter’s statement, Mrs. Ulrich? Would you like to hear?”
She could not accuse her daughter, could she. Her daughter she loved, she could not.
Could not plead, She is cruel, she hates us. Blames me, I don’t know why. My only child. She is evil.
The history of her nightmares. The history of her fantasizing. Delusions, hallucinations. Accusing others. Blaming others. Sex, molestations, rape. Threats against her life. Stalking. “Plundering” of her soul.
She wasn’t sure she could bear it, hearing her daughter’s voice. The voice she hadn’t heard in years. Gripping her daughter’s thin clammy-cold hand, in the hospital room in East Lansing. Vowing to save her. Not to abandon her, as Hans had done. Trade my life for yours if I could.
History of nightmares. How was it the mother’s fault?
History of accusations. Causing wreckage in lives then moving on. How was it the mother’s fault?
Not under arrest. Her name would not (yet) be released to any news media. Certainly she might call an attorney. Cooperation with the investigation was advised.
Witnesses would be interviewed. Records and documents would be checked. Mrs. Ulrich might provide names. Mrs. Ulrich might take a polygraph if wished. The body of Pink Bunny Baby would very likely be exhumed for DNA analysis.
A match to Mrs. Ulrich?
Unless the child had been adopted.
Unless the child had been abducted.
“… never spoke of this, Mrs. Ulrich? That you can recall?”
“Spoke of … ?”
“Having seen your husband ‘smothering’ a child. Telling your daughter it was ‘only a doll.’”
“Of course not.”
“This is entirely new to you.”
“Yes! It is.”
Wanting to scream at him. The enemy.
Lydia was speaking more calmly now. A sob in her voice.
She would not cry. Swiping at her eyes that stung as if she’d been staring into a blinding sun.
They would be impressed with Lydia’s integrity. Her honesty. She’d taken a seat on the ottoman. Backless, because her posture was so impressive. She would not cry.
“She began taking drugs in middle school, I think. She was fourteen, wouldn’t come downstairs to dinner one evening when Hans was home, he called her, insisted that she come eat with us, there was a wild stomping on the stairs, Alva had wound transparent tape around her head, over her face, she’d made a grotesque mask of her own face, distorted, hellish, she was laughing and flinging herself around as if she wanted to hurt herself, Hans and I were terrified . . . She’d taken methamphetamine, we’d hardly known such a drug existed. Hans couldn’t deal with it. I had to calm Alva, try to calm her, her skin was burning, I managed to unwind and cut the horrible tape away from her head, her eyebrows and eyelashes, clumps of hair were pulled out, what a nightmare! Hans, the most agnostic of men, who hadn’t a shred of belief in anything supernatural, said of our daughter, ‘A devil gets into her,’ sometimes, ‘A devil is in her.’ But he never hurt her. Except once, that time in the park. The lilac bushes were in bloom, it should have been a beautiful time. Stands of lilac growing wild. That rich smothering smell, there’s a kind of madness in it. Hans hadn’t meant to hurt her. She was a torment to us. ‘A devil, a devil is in her.’ But after that he rarely touched her even to hug her, kiss her. He was frightened, I think. Of what he might do to her. I was the one who loved her. I’ve never given up.”
Yes, she would be calling an attorney: This very day.
Yes, she would cooperate with their investigation, for she had no reason not to cooperate. Her daughter’s charges were absurd. Her daughter was mentally unstable. There was a medical history, there were medical records.
The good that came of this would be: Alva would receive medical treatment. In Carbondale, or here in Bethesda. Lydia would make arrangements.
Would not cry. Would not be destroyed.
Yes, she would hear the tape of her daughter’s accusations. She was prepared for the shock of it. She believed.
Then, as one of the detectives moved to change the cassettes, Lydia asked him to wait a minute. She would be right back.
Rising shakily to her feet. One of the detectives helped her. How brittle her bones felt! For the first time, she was feeling her age.
In her bathroom Lydia ran cold water from a faucet, distracted by the stricken face in the mirror. Perhaps she did look sixty-three. Perhaps the detectives had not been surprised. The capacity to recognize the self is located in the left brain hemisphere, but in Lydia, so wounded, the capacity seemed to be damaged. Why is that woman so old? I remember her young.
She could not bear it, the woman’s eyes.
In the medicine cabinet were numerous little bottles of pills. Old prescriptions she’d never thrown away. You never know when you might need sleeping pills, painkillers. She’d amassed a considerable quantity.
Running water, Lydia opened the bathroom door stealthily.
She’d hoped that, through the mirror, which would pick up a reflecting surface in the dining room, she could see slantwise into the living room, where the detectives were. By now one was probably on his feet, stretching. Perhaps both. In lowered tones they would be speaking of their suspect. The mask-faces were animated now. They were alive now, scenting their prey. Their teeth were bared in exhilaration. Yet: they were uncertain of the woman, she was nothing like they’d expected. The daughter’s story was so far-fetched. Much of it was unverifiable. Much of it was common knowledge, widely reported in the media. The defense attorney would rebut their case. There was the daughter’s medical history, they would investigate.
But Lydia couldn’t see into the living room. The glass door of a breakfront reflected only a doorway, a wall.
Lydia was thinking of the famous experiment in childhood truth-telling and deception. Pandora’s box, some called it.
Several children of about the age of three were left alone together in a room, emphatically instructed not to look into a shut box. Through a hidden camera, the children were videotaped. Nearly 90% of the children looked into the box, but, when questioned, less than 33% confessed to having looked. When five-year-olds were tested, nearly 100% disobeyed and tried, often very convincingly, to deceive. Demonstrating that, as children mature, their capacity for deception increases.
Curious, Hans had wanted to test Alva at age two. Her disobeying, and her insistence upon her innocence afterward, had been so charming, Hans had only laughed. His beautiful little girl, so precocious! In a variant of the test, Hans offered a chocolate treat to Alva if she “really, really” told the truth. Some children, stricken with doubt, would have demurred at this. Not Alva.
Lydia had laughed with Hans, though saddened by the child’s precocious duplicity. And, somehow, the innocence of it. But Hans had been charmed. In Homo sapiens the talent for deception is our strong evolutionary advantage.
No trust. Preemptive war. The only wisdom.
Summoning her strength to walk back into the living room, even to smile at her tormentors, Lydia saw that, as she’d envisioned, one of the detectives was strolling about, admiring the view from Lydia’s windows. “Twelfth floor? Must be nice.” Gently Lydia corrected him: “Tenth floor.”
They asked Lydia if she was prepared to hear her daughter’s statement, and Lydia said yes.