According to Ellen's running log, the Esplanade along the Charles River had been one of her favorite haunts. It was in the heart of the city, nowhere near Marblehead, yet she'd gone back to it over and over. I understood why when I tried it myself. With the skyline of Boston to the south, Cambridge to the north, and the Charles in between, there was something dazzling to gaze at from every angle, especially on a night like this when the clear winter air brought the lights of the city so close.
It felt good to run, to be outside and not cooped up in my hotel room watching videos. I'd made a decision not to feel threatened every minute of every day, to take charge of my life again, and it felt good.
I'd left my cell phone in the car, which didn't help much when my beeper went off somewhere around the Harvard Bridge. I had to run around Cambridge until I found a pay phone. The number on the beeper wasn't one I recognized, and when I dialed, it didn't even ring once.
"I've been beeping you for twenty minutes."
"Twenty minutes, huh?" It was ten minutes, at most.
"What's that noise?" he asked. "Where are you?"
"I'm out running. Is this your car phone number?"
"Yeah. I'm on my way to the airport. If we get cut off, it's because I'm in the tunnel."
"Why don't you tell me why you called before you go into the tunnel?"
"There was a fight tonight at the airport. Two rampers got into it. They called me about a half hour ago from the hospital."
"Who's hurt and how bad?"
"It was Little Pete Dwyer and Terry McTavish. Little Pete's at the hospital. Cuts and lacerations. I don't know about Terry."
"Is Terry McTavish John's brother?"
"That's a coincidence."
"That two guys with the same name are brothers?"
"No, no. We had a stare-down last night between John McTavish and Big Pete. It was when you were at that sales meeting."
"Shocked the shit out of me," he said. "Terry's not a guy who causes trouble."
"Do you know what the fight was about?"
"No idea. I'm on my way in to do the investigation."
"Do you want help? I can be there in an hour."
"No. I want you to hear the grievance, so you need to stay out of the action. That way it never has to go out of the station."
"You don't want it to go to Lenny."
"When Lenny hears our grievances, he always finds for the union. Or he makes some deal. There's nothing they can do bad enough that Lenny won't cut a deal and bring 'em back to work."
"That sounds like an exaggeration."
"You can check the record."
"All right. What time is it? I don't have a watch on."
"It's just after nine." The connection was starting to break up. "What are you doing out so late?"
"Call me when you're finished and give me the details," I said, ignoring the question. He sounded like my mother.
"You gonna be at the hotel?"
Before I could answer, the line went dead. He must have gone into the tunnel.
A United B767 under tow crept along the outer taxi-way toward the maintenance hangar. I could see it from my hotel window. Except for anti-collision lights, the aircraft was dark, all engines off. Moving like that through the night, it looked like a submarine running in deep water.
It had been almost three hours since Dan had called about the fight. I imagined him down there, interviewing closed-mouth rampers, trying to conduct an investigation, trying to figure out who had done what to whom. It was hard waiting. I could have beeped him, but I knew he'd call when he had something.
The Celtics were on TV keeping me company. Listening with one ear, I knew it was late in the campaign and the Celts were out on the West Coast getting clobbered by Golden State, of all teams. I came away from the window, stood in the light of the TV, and stared blankly. Someone in the hometown team's shamrock green uniform had just been called for goal-tending. I started to turn it off, but then sat on the bed instead and watched.
My father had loved basketball. And football. And baseball most of all. His hometown Cubs were his favorite, but he'd watch any team. He'd sit by the hour in front of the TV, which is what he used to do instead of engaging with the rest of the world, including my brothers, my sister, and me. I started sitting and watching with him, and pretty soon he started teaching me all the rules, all the teams, and all the players. I was a good student. He'd quiz me, and when I knew one he didn't expect, his face would light up and he'd be so proud. And when he'd fall asleep, I'd still be watching, trying to learn more names, to memorize more stats so that when he woke up, I could make his face light up again. I began to love the thing he loved, which was as close as I ever got to him.
The Warriors were on a 12-0 run, and there didn't seem to be much hope. Besides, I'd lost the thread. I didn't know any of these players. I reached up with the remote and clicked it off.
For a while I sat on the bed and stared at the phone. Eventually, I was staring not at the phone but into the corner of my room where I'd left Ellen's box of personal momentos. I hadn't touched it since the night we'd bolted from her house. I'd started to a couple of times-Dan asked about it almost once a day-but over the weekend I hadn't wanted to be reminded. After Lenny's call on Monday, I wasn't sure I wanted to open it up at all. I knew that if I did, I'd find out all kinds of details about Ellen, the odd and unique ones that would turn her into a person to me. If I opened that box, Ellen would come out and sit in the room next to me and talk to me and I'd get to know her and pretty soon I wouldn't be able to put her back.
I stared at the phone a little longer. Stood up. Paced around. Wished I had brought work home with me. The second time I looked at the box, it was already too late. I went to the corner, picked it up, and hoisted it onto the bed. Before opening it, I laid my hand over it, palm flat, pausing for a moment before disturbing the contents. Then I lifted the lid and began.
Dan had tossed in the mail he'd found at the house, and it was right on top. It was a large stack until I took out all the coupon flyers and catalogues. What was left was a couple of bills and a plain postcard.
Not much different from my own mail. According to her bills, Ellen had paid a fortune to heat that big house, and she was a frequent purchaser of cable pay-per-view movies, the single woman's best friend. At the Marblehead Athletic Club she'd charged the same bagel and cream cheese at the juice bar three days a week, every week, in December. Four times in the month, once a week on Mondays, she'd been charged fifty dollars for something coded PT, which I took to mean personal trainer. I started to put it back into the envelope when I noticed the date of her last session- January 5. It was the day she died. Seemed strange to work out, then go home and hang yourself. A phone number was provided on the invoice. I put it aside to call sometime when it wasn't the middle of the night.
The last item, the postcard, had looked like junk mail because of the computer-generated address label, but the single line of type across the back identified it as something far more interesting. "Have been unable to contact you by phone," it read. "Please call me." And it was signed by none other than Julia Milholland, the mystery woman with the old-Boston name. Whoever she was, she was persistent. And discreet. Not only had she never left a clue in her multiple phone messages, the front of the card was blank. No title, affiliation, or company name, but there was a return address on Charles Street. I put it with the health club invoice.
The rest of the box was filled with Ellen's ubiquitous hanging files with colored labels, which is not how I stored anything personal. I thought the one labeled letters was promising, but I didn't get too far into the newsy notes from Aunt Jo and chatty letters from high school and college chums before realizing that what I needed was a box of letters from Ellen.
She'd kept a stack of photo ID's, mostly from school, work, and health clubs. I remembered seeing Ellen at a few company functions and meetings. I knew what she had looked like, but this was the first time I'd seen a picture of her. She had chin-length red hair and hazel eyes. She had high cheekbones that came down to a rather square jaw. She wasn't pretty in the classic fashion model sense, but she was attractive in an unusual way. She didn't smile much, it seemed, at least not in the photos. I lined them up in chronological order and watched her age all the way up to the last one taken in Boston. The first was a Florida State driver's license issued on her sixteenth birthday. I stared at it for a long time before I was satisfied there was nothing in her smile, nothing in her eyes to portend a life already almost half over.
If people can be defined by the things they keep and the things they let drift away, for Ellen, so specific in everything she did, it would be particularly true. Nothing was in that box that hadn't meant something to her. What surprised me was that they meant something to me, too. Mass cards for the deceased, some with the last name Shepard, reminded me of a worn leather box my mother had kept in the basement, filled with old family photos, black-and-white, stiff with age. It reminded me of a picture I'd found in that box of my mother on her graduation day from a Catholic grade school in St. Louis. She was squinting into the camera, wearing a shy smile. It was the first time I'd ever seen my mother as a girl. I stared at that picture forever. She'd looked hopeful, something I'd never seen in her in real life. It was the first time I'd understood that she had been young once, that she had lived a life before me, one that didn't include me.
Ellen's rosary was in a velvet pouch with a First Holy Communion label stitched in gold. I hadn't thrown mine away, but I hadn't kept it, either. I didn't know what had happened to it. This one was tiny and delicate, made for eight-year-old hands with mother of pearl beads and a simple gold crucifix. I hadn't held a rosary in so long, I'd forgotten what it felt like.
Her birth certificate was there from a hospital in Dade County, Florida. When I pulled out an unlabeled file in the back, a news clip fell onto the cotton sheets. When I turned it over, I was confused for a moment because the woman staring back from the brittle, yellowed newsprint could have been a seamless addition to the chronology of Ellen's ID photos. It could have been Ellen in middle age. But it was a photo of her mother, and this was her obituary.
Anna Bache Shepard had died when she was forty-eight years old. She'd been survived by Joseph T. Shepard, her husband of nineteen years, and her fourteen-year-old daughter, Ellen. Services were held at Christ the King Catholic Church in Miami Shores. I read the clipping a second time, wondering why she'd died so young, but there was no cause given. I understood why after I'd read the only other document in the file, her death certificate. Ellen's mother had committed suicide. She'd hanged herself.