Marshalling the Forces
Sean Brody had long ceased worrying that strangers ringing his doorbell might be psychopaths determined to club him to death during Wheel of Fortune. He assumed the front desk folks at Brookhaven Assisted Care screened out psychopaths. And sure enough, Marshall Grissom was not a psychopath.
Marshall, Sean would eventually decide, only suffered from some milder form of insanity.
* * *
April 1, 2046
Brookhaven Assisted Care
Sean rocked back and forth a couple of times to escape a chair that had become the de facto center of his life. This gentle rocking built momentum so prosthetic knees could propel him to a standing position and drive those first stiff steps toward his front door.
The doorbell’s single hollow ding caught Sean snoring as he again tried making headway reading Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand’s preachy, interminable soliloquies were the most effective sleep aids he’d ever encountered.
Sean, who didn’t expect a caller, took a quick mental inventory. He hadn’t forgotten a doctors’ visit, he was sure. Liam hadn’t said anything about stopping by. Probably just the Jehovah’s Witnesses at it again. Even though proselytizers were not allowed through the main entrance, the more persistent Witnesses sometimes sneaked through a side door. And seen through the distorting lens of Sean’s peephole, this hallway stranger certainly looked goofy enough to be a religious zealot.
The peephole revealed Sean’s visitor as not just tall but towering. The man’s frame appeared so thin he might not tolerate a strong wind. He had a full head of black hair and wore a light sport coat that—even on an April Phoenix morning—he should be glad to shed. His tie was knotted a bit off center. The peephole’s fisheye lens converted his pointy nose to a bulging prominence dwarfing other facial features as he leaned to punch the doorbell again.
Sean smiled. He enjoyed messing with the Witnesses.
He jerked open the door. Before the stranger could begin his spiel, Sean thrust Rand’s fat paperback at him. “You ever read this book?”
The man, whose unmagnified nose still looked a little outsized for his face, jumped back. “Um . . . Mr. Brody?”
“You ever read this book?” Sean demanded again, waving the volume in the man’s face.
His visitor seemed lost.
“Atlas Shrugged. Supposed to be a classic. Dry as dirt, though.”
The man offered his own helpless shrug.
“Come on. Ayn Rand? The Fountainhead?”
Sean snapped his fingers and tapped one foot in a sloppy rhythm while reciting,
“I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded. . .”
The odd-looking man brightened. Grinning and, stomping out the same rhythm, he replied,
“. . .Communist, ’cause I’m left-handed . . .”
Sean laughed and slapped the man’s shoulder.
“Paul Simon, right?” the man asked.
“Correct,” Sean said. “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission). Decades before your time, though.”
“We had a bunch of old records in our attic when I was a kid. I listened to the ones I thought were funny,” the man said. “But I’m sorry, I haven’t read your book.”
“Just as well. A friend gave it to me months ago. Said it’s one of those books everyone should read. I’ve been trying ever since.”
“Well . . . okay.”
An awkward moment of silence intervened—filled only by the glow of Sean’s muted television set—before Sean’s guest said, “Wow. Wheel of Fortune. I watched that as a kid. I didn’t know it was still on.”
“Well, it is,” Sean said. “Pat Sajak is even stiffer than he used to be. I can’t decide if he’s had one of those Cyborg implant things, or if his continued role as MC is the result of some really clever taxidermy.”
“Taxidermy?” Marshall said, appearing a little startled. “Well, I don’t they could—”
“Yeah,” Sean said. “I don’t know how they’d make his arm mobile enough to spin the wheel.”
“Um . . . I’m sorry to intrude, Mr. Brody, and I know this will seem strange. My name is Marshall Grissom, and I hope you’ll have a few minutes to talk with me.”
Sean found himself liking this fellow, and he certainly had a few minutes. At his age, visitors were rare enough that he welcomed an opportunity to talk with pretty much anyone, even the Witnesses. Oh, sure, his sons came by when they could. James and Russel lived out of town, though. Liam had his own life and children with which to deal.
Sean stood aside and, with a sweep of his hand, invited Marshall in.
Two chairs formed the focal points of Sean’s living-room. A big chair—the one his sons had bought when they moved him to his one-bedroom apartment at a north Phoenix assisted living facility—reclined, rocked, and rotated through a full three hundred and sixty degrees. A comfortable clutter of magazines, bills and junk mail spilled off a small table onto the floor. An old fixed-screen laptop computer sat dark beneath a table lamp.
Sean directed Marshall to a worn recliner that swallowed Marshall in its failing springs.
Sean dropped into his own seat. “So . . . Mr. Grissom, is it? What flavor are you?”
“Flavor?” Marshall asked.
“Denomination. If you want me to attend your church, I need to know what my ultimate destination will be. I have no interest in reincarnation. Too much of a crap shoot concerning what you’ll end up with. And if you want a contribution, well, I’m afraid—”
“Oh . . . No. This isn’t about church, or religion. I just wanted to . . . I need to ask you some questions.”
“Ask away. I’ll warn you, though, I won’t confess to the murder.”
“Murder?” Marshall asked displaying an expression of shock.
“I was joking.”
“Um . . . okay. Well, how’s your health?”
“Good. And how’s yours?”
“I’m fine,” Marshall said. “So, you’re . . . well?”
“Considering nowadays they can pretty much replace your parts and keep you going until you just get bored with it all, yes. I suppose I am. But I’m ninety-three years old, you know. Another ten or fifteen years and I’ll be done.”
Sean thought Marshall seemed a bit apprehensive as his visitor asked, “Do . . . do you have many of those . . . replacement parts?”
Sean gave a little snort at the question. He often pondered the contrast between himself as a robust, athletic young man, and a person marked with the afflictions of age—his height compromised by a stoop declaring onset of osteoporosis, thick dark hair reduced to sparse wisps of white, age spots spattering his arms and hands, a face gaunt from his inability to maintain weight. Not to mention a missing hunk of ear sacrificed to careless years of unheeded sunshine. He hoped casual observers would not yet describe him as frail, and that his eyes retained their spark of fascination with the world around him.
“Knees. A heart regulation system—one of those little plastic and metal things they stick right in your heart to keep everything steady. And I got those new visual implants. My surgeon installed a control pad here,” he displayed his left wrist. “Lets me adjust the focal length, so I don’t need glasses to read or see at a distance. Which is great, because I love to read in bed, and you can’t lie on your side wearing glasses.”
Now, Sean’s guest seemed clearly dismayed.
“Is this what you do for fun?” Sean asked. “Visit strangers and ask about their infirmities? Are you selling some kind of insurance?”
“No. I’m not selling anything. I asked because . . . because I—and some friends of mine—need a favor.”
“Who are your friends?” Sean asked.
Marshall appeared disheartened, the wind spilled from his sails. Sean raised his eyebrows as encouragement for Marshall to continue.
“Marta, Elvin, Gillis . . .” Marshall said absently. “And some others. Marta runs things now . . .”
“Do I know these people? And this Marta, why didn’t she come herself?”
“What? Oh . . . the thing about Marta is . . . while she’s this really great lady, she’s, well, she’s Marta. And I guess she thought asking about this favor is the sort of thing that requires some degree of, I don’t know, charming? Marta really doesn’t do charming.”
Marshall sighed and seemed a little more lost.
“Have I disappointed you somehow?” Sean asked.
“Oh . . . no . . . it’s just that, well, implants . . . knees and heart systems . . . never mind.”
A nagging spark of familiarity picked at the back of Sean’s brain. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“That’s a difficult question to answer. I think a more appropriate question would be ‘do you know me from some time?’ And the answer, technically, would be yes, although it doesn’t do us any good right now.”
Uh, oh, Sean thought.
“I do know a few things about you, though,” Marshall continued a little more brightly. “For example, you and I are both alumni of New Mexico State University. Go Aggies?”
“Okay. My health. Where I went to school. It’s time to tell me what this is about.”
“As I said, we need your help. We need assistance from someone who lived in or around Portales, New Mexico, during the late 1960s. Someone who might still be willing to take a risk . . .” Marshall paused and adopted a somber tone. “. . . a bigger risk than we’d hoped, I’m afraid.”
Sean had lived in that desolate Eastern New Mexico community from the year of his birth, 1953, until his graduation from Portales High School with the class of 1971. So, he fit that part of Marshall’s profile. The thing about taking a risk, though . . . Sean’s greatest regret was that he’d burrowed too deeply into his comfort zones too often and hadn’t been willing to make a few critical choices that might have steered his life on a different course.
He rose, walked to a set of sliding glass doors overlooking a compact patio where he enjoyed sitting in the cool of early morning and tossing seed to birds eager to greet him.
“I’m afraid my risk-taking days are behind me.”
“Not . . . not necessarily,” Marshall said. “Your days, I mean.”
Sean turned from the glass panels and studied Marshall with renewed intensity. “I don’t mean to offend you, Mr. Grissom, but you are an odd man.”
“Um . . . I’m really not.”
“I worked as a newspaper reporter for many years, and I know something about intruding on strangers, trying to convince them they should answer my questions. What I usually said was, ‘I’m a reporter with the Chronicle,’ or the Herald-Republic or the Sun-News. I didn’t begin like that, though, when I knew they’d kick me out—once they learned I was a reporter—if I didn’t soften them up a little first. In those cases, I’d be somewhat vague or deceptive before we got to the truth. You haven’t told me a thing about who you represent, Mr. Grissom. You, sir, are trying to soften me up. Why don’t you just say what you want?”
“Oh, trust me, Mr. Brody, you’re not anywhere near soft enough for that yet. Um . . . would you mind telling me about Portales? I’ve never visited Eastern New Mexico.”
Sean retraced his steps, sat again, and considered for a moment cutting off this inquiry. Sending this character on his way. He felt intrigued, though, concerning whatever Marshall might be after.
“Okay, Portales. It’s a town of about twelve thousand people, thirty miles or so from the Texas Panhandle.”
“Your family is from there?”
“You want the history, huh? Well, I’ll warn you, old men like to talk about where and who they came from.”
Sean rocked out of his chair, walked across the room, and picked up a photograph displaying a frowning, hollow-cheeked man with slicked-down hair, holding a wide-brimmed straw hat at his side. A small, weary-eyed woman sporting a bonnet sat in a chair beside her husband.
“These are my father’s parents, circa 1920 or so. My mom and dad were children of homesteaders, who lived hard-scrabble lives during the Great Depression. Eastern New Mexico and West Texas are located at the heart of a plain called the Llano Estacado, where trees are nearly as scarce as rain. On the rare occasion anyone finds a tree, they install a picnic table and call it a park.”
Marshal chuckled at this image. Sean felt encouraged to continue.
“Mesquite bushes, tumbleweeds, a few hearty grasses and the occasional prickly pear cactus are the only things that volunteer to grow there. Farmers trick peanuts, sweet potatoes and some cotton to grow with irrigation from deep wells.”
“I’m from Eastern Arizona,” Marshall said. “I know about the desert.”
Sean dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
“Son, your Sonoran Desert is a garden compared to the high plains. At times, I’m tempted to feel sorry for my forebears . . .” pointing at more ancestral photos lined along the bookshelf. “. . . for all the sacrifice it took to domesticate that hard place.”
He shook his head, feigning sympathy. Then amended regret with accusation as a spark of mischief lit his hazel eyes.
“Then, I always conclude it was their own damn fault. They were homesteaders, for God’s sake! A few more weeks, and they would have made it to Arizona or at least southern New Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley. If you were stopping someplace, why would you choose a place without water and a population of tumbleweeds?”
“Sounds pretty bleak.”
“Oh, Eastern New Mexico has its beauty if you squint a little bit and know where to look. The locals seem to like it. You’ve never smelled air so sweet when it finally does rain. On the best summer days, cumulous clouds pile up in the distant western sky with these tongues of lightning—well, it’s close to indescribable.”
“Times were tough? Economically, I mean?” Marshall asked.
“No, not for me. For my parents, though—take that dry dusty homestead, drop the Great Depression in the middle of it, now there’s some tough times. The amazing thing, both my folks spit in the eye of poverty and got college degrees. Then they went off and whipped Hitler.”
“What did your parents do for a living?” Marshall asked.
“My dad worked for the Soil Conservation Service. My mom was a teacher.”
Marshall leaned forward and studied the row of photographs. He pointed to a picture of three grade-school-aged boys, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, grinning before a background of 60’s era automobiles.
“Is this you? You look like you were pretty happy.”
“I experienced all the advantages and handicaps of a small-town childhood.” Sean stared a little wistfully at the picture. “My folks saddled me with a solid work ethic and enough ambition to be frustrated when my life failed to attain the grand heights for which I imagined myself destined. Not that I have anything to complain about.”
“You didn’t stay?”
“Shoot, within two weeks of graduating high school, I left for good, though of course I returned to visit. I got my degree from New Mexico State and then chased newspaper jobs into the Pacific Northwest where there’s lots of water and mountains on every horizon.”
“Are you . . . are you close to your sons?” Marshall asked, sinking back into his chair.
Sean sensed the hesitation in Marshall’s question. Again, he considered feeling uncomfortable concerning the personal nature of this line of inquiry from a stranger. The clear sincerity of Marshall’s interest, though, convinced Sean to continue.
“Close enough. Like I said, my two oldest, James and Russel, are in the Pacific Northwest. Liam lives here. They visit when they can.”
“Did you enjoy being a newspaper reporter?”
“It was a job, like any job. Parts good. Parts bad. I was okay at it, not . . . great. I wish I’d have worked harder at a few things. You get old enough, you can admit those sorts of things to yourself. I got out before the newspaper industry collapsed. They pushed a lot of us into early retirement. The timing wasn’t good. A few months after I left, Wall Street hammered my investments. So, I kept writing—freelance work, some short stories, a couple of abortive attempts at a novel.” He pointed to a fat stack of paper next to his computer.
“You were divorced?” Marshall asked.
“Yeah, I visited my kids with that particular affliction, like so many of us Boomers.”
Again, Sean considered taking umbrage at the personal nature of these questions, but something about the concern with which Marshall asked them encouraged his cooperation.
“Why didn’t you remarry?”
“You’re kind of nosey, aren’t you?” Sean observed, though he softened the statement with a smile.
Marshall’s face wore an apology.
“I came close—three times.” Sean added a little wave to indicate he hadn’t taken offense. “I met a younger woman who needed children of her own. My kids were still young themselves, though. My conscience wouldn’t let me divide my attention that way. Not that I was a great father. Mercifully, I dodged the second bullet, which had misery written all over it. The third one . . . let’s just say I would like to have seen how . . .”
His voice trailed off. He studied the pale blue carpeting at his feet. Sean required a moment, even after all these years, to compose himself when thinking of Maggie Stanfield.
He inhaled deeply, then met Marshall’s eyes. “Enough memories. Tell me what’s on your mind. Why the questions about my hometown? And who recommended me for whatever scheme you’ve got cooking here?”
Sean waited for a last name. When Marshall didn’t supply one, Sean drifted to the early 1980s, a cramped dark space in what was then a seedy section of downtown Spokane, Washington, across from the old Greyhound Bus Station. The building consisted of an unkempt storefront—a heavy glass door set in an ornate oak frame recessed between two wide plate-glass windows so grimy, light barely escaped a trifling reception area just inside. The shop shared abutting walls with two turn-of-the-century hotels that had become the province of pimps, hookers, Ronald Reagan’s displaced mental patients, and a few elderly folks whose residency extended to a time of neighborhood respectability, and whose only economic choice was to remain.
Sean could still smell mingling odors of printers’ ink and pipe tobacco welcoming those who ventured through the door of Cecil’s Margin Service.
“You don’t mean Cecil from Spokane . . . ?”
“Well, he presently lives on a sailboat in the Caribbean.”
“Wait a minute. How could you know him? I mean, I don’t know how old he was, but certainly several years older than me, and that would make him . . .”
“He’s 106. I’ll leave you a number, but the closest phone is at a marina shack and a kid named Baptiste has to walk all the way down the dock to get him.”
“My God.” Sean’s mind spilled over memories like water over rocks in a stream. “After all these years . . . please. Tell me more. How can I help you?”
Marshall hesitated. Once again, Sean saw a man struggling with a decision.
“Um . . . I was just . . . we needed information about the town. And you’ve been very helpful . . .”
“While I may be old, Mr. Grissom, I’m not addled,” Sean said. “You didn’t track me down to ask questions about weather in Portales. Something I’ve said here made you change your mind about me.”
Again, Marshall paused.
“Well, no . . . there are complications I hadn’t counted on . . . And you’re right. I didn’t come to talk about the weather. I came because you are one of a very few people left in the world who might be able to . . . to help a friend who is . . .”
Marshall closed his eyes, taking a deep breath like a man jumping into cold water.
“Please be forewarned, what I’m about to say will sound completely crazy. At the very least, though, I’ll promise you it’s a good story. More entertaining than anything you’ll find on television this afternoon.”