«You wanna take this outside?»
«Outside the bedroom? Yeah, it’s getting stuffy in here.»
I hopped out of bed and into some shoes, grabbed the keys off the dresser.
«Let’s head west,» I suggested. Tony nodded and we left.
I drove us away from the Valley, onto the 101, to the 405. The heavy traffic gave me some time to look around at other drivers, and when that got boring, at the houses perched on the brown hills that flanked the freeway. Tony grew up in one of these houses, as he never failed to note when we passed them.
«The old neighborhood,» he said with some nostalgia in his voice. His stories – their repetition – never bothered me. There was something about his family that reminded me of my own. It made me feel safe even though my folks were at the other end of the country.
«You see that up there?» he gestured toward a castle-looking structure about halfway up the hill we were approaching. It was an architectural monstrosity, part gothic, part high 80s modern, like it couldn’t decide on what era it wanted to identify with. «That’s the Holdermans’ place.»
I gazed at it as traffic inched past it.
«Charity Holderman,» he said slowly, as if to summon her memory. «She was that kind of friend who was on the periphery. Part of the group, but aloof to the point that no one ever really knew what was going on with her.»
There was a surprising hint of disgust in Tony’s voice as he spoke.
«So I take it you guys didn’t like her very much?» I asked.
«No no, it’s not that. She was nice enough, could joke around like anyone else. But beyond that, there was a wall, or silence. Like a refusal to engage. It’s just hard to feel anything for someone who won’t share themselves.»
I couldn’t tell if that was aimed partly at me. I wanted to defend her.
«Maybe she’s just a private person. Or maybe she was just really nervous,» I suggested.
«What happened to her?»
Tony hesitated before he spoke, and for a second I thought he’d hold back. But then –
«The summer after high school we had planned this big trip to Brazil, all our friends. I think it might have been Charity’s idea even. She had made all the arrangements cause she was just good at that stuff. You know, cause she’s a woman.»
I shot him a look and clucked my tongue.
«What?» he grinned. «Anyway, her dad also offered his company jet and their condo in Rio. It was all in her hands anyway. So the day comes when we’re supposed to leave, and we roll up to Chateau Holderman to pick her up. Her maid goes up to get her, but she comes back saying Charity’s not there. I told her that was ridiculous, because we’d been planning this trip for weeks. So I decide to go up to her room myself.»
The steering wheel felt moist to my hands. The heat was starting to get to me.
«So I go up to her bedroom. It’s at the top of the house – at that highest turret,» he pointed. «I’m calling her name as I climb the steps, there’s a like a million of them. No answer.»
I shift a little in my seat. Just get to the end of the story, I say to myself.
«I’m pretty pissed because I don’t know why she couldn’t just be downstairs when she knew we were coming, and I had to hike up just to get her,» there’s that disgust in his voice again, mixed with some exasperation. Why is he so angry? «I basically kick open her door. Everything – everything – is gone.»
«Her closets cleaned and everything?»
«Not just closets, but all the damn furniture – her bed, the desk, the dresser,» his hands moved slowly in front of him, as if to feel out the bedroom furniture’s layout. «All gone. The only things left were the curtains hanging at the windows, which were wide open.»
«What about the maid? She must’ve known something, since she’d gone to get her the first time?» I asked, trying to find some hole in this.
«The maid swore that all the stuff was there when she’d gone up ten minutes before,» Tony answered, with a dramatic pause at the end. How was I supposed to respond to this?
«Sounds like a ghost story. Like a really stupid ghost story,» I said skeptically.
«Well… no, not really,» his tone lightened. «Charity’s Benz was gone, and we found out later that so was the jet.»
«So she just skipped town?»
Tony shrugged, a little smile on his face.
I take it back. Castle homes, maids, private jets, ghost teens. His family and childhood were nothing like my own.
From here on, Tony was inaccessible. His hands fidgeted with an old gum wrapper he’d found in the car door. He seemed to be staring intently at an ad on a billboard ahead of us for a sub-prime lender, one that I’d been tempted to use before. It screamed in Spanish; Tony didn’t know Spanish.
«So where we going?» I asked, even though I had set out knowing exactly where I wanted to take us.
I admit I was stuck on Charity Holderman too, or rather the way that Tony narrated. I couldn’t decide if I believed it or not. He wasn’t cunning or in control of his thoughts enough to tell stories. His mind, like mine, wandered, unable to pick out the right parts to share. You could see it in this bit about Charity; the loose ends didn’t make sense.
My head got warm all of a sudden, it must’ve been the fumes of sitting cars in the middle of July. Our lane moved and we pulled up alongside an olive malibu. It vibrated and thumped with slow bass beats. The driver looked stoically ahead, unfazed at the walls of sound that made a fort around him. Our car, my head throbbed too.
I took the next exit and headed west on Santa Monica Boulevard, toward water.