3. Germany Again

Rhonda Shipley was showing him photos. There were drying tracks of tears on her cheeks. Her housecoat had come loose; the skin between her breasts was white and sprinkled with freckles and Drew felt a pang of desire that was somehow incompatible with pity: I could make you forget for a while ... Gerard Shipley sat watching them from across the room, silent as a bodyguard. Then after a minute he sighed loudly and left the room.

"This would be, oh God, grade nine." The thin boy in the school photo had adopted a look of aggrieved boredom, like one of the kids Drew sometimes saw waiting, huddled under awnings, to get into all-age punk rock shows. "I don't think there will be anything much more recent. He didn't like having his picture taken."

Drew nodded, one parent to another—but suppressed a smile at the thought of Miranda as a child, posing like a prima donna whenever the camera was brought out: pursing her lips, cocking a hip, pulling her face into monstrous masks, sticking out her tongue, splaying her fingers, throwing open her arms ... Did she still love having her picture taken? It seemed unlikely: what adult did? He would ask her tonight.

"'Taken' is the right word," she said. Her eyes became unfocused, her gaze hovering somewhere above the table where she had spread out the photos. "In other languages—German for example—it's 'make a photo,' not 'take' one. Nathan certainly always looked like he was having his taken." She looked sideways at him, then smiled shamefully and looked down at the table again. "I visited Germany once, when I was young."

He was overwhelmed. Everything was imbued with significance: the photos on the table, still in the original envelopes from the developers; the rainlight from the window trickling over her pale skin; not least of all the meaningful glance she had given him. She had visited Germany once, when she was young. In this phrase, she had laid bare her soul; the glance said that he was welcome to look inside.

He suddenly felt—he knew—that everything meant something else. The photos of the dead son, never taken out of their envelopes until his death, were a symbol for the human condition, human frailty, the human inability to hold on to anything; the rain on the skin was life's essential sadness; the glance was something else (it didn't matter exactly what, it didn't have to be put into words, he understood implicitly and completely what it meant, as if he had spent all his life studying such glances); and Germany, of course, was nothing less than youth: lost, irretrievable youth.

What she was really saying was that she had been young once, and beautiful, and besotted with dreams; and that she realized now that she was again that fresh, naive girl traipsing through Germany. The time between then and now had been eradicated with the death of the meaning and purpose of her intervening life—with the death of her child. She had lost everything, and so regained her youth. The only way to start over is to start over. She was saying that, despite her tragic loss, she was happy to be starting over. When she looked away from him, down at the table, it was in shame at what she had realized, and what she had, with that glance and that phrase, admitted.

He put his hand on hers (an eloquent, universal gesture) and she, understanding that she had been given permission, allowed herself to weep.

Gerard Shipley returned with two fresh cups of coffee, one of which he placed rather fussily on the table, next to Drew's still-unfinished first. The other he carried to his chair and held in his lap.

"Thank you." Drew waited a moment, then let go of the man's wife's hand.

"And, uh, these are from summer camp," said Rhonda Shipley.

The meaningfulness had drained from the room.

"And this would be Christmas in Connecticut with Gerard's family, don't ask me what year ..."

In some of the photos was a man who looked itchingly familiar; but otherwise the photos held no interest. They could have come from any stranger's family album. There were no photos of Nathan Shipley that he could use.

Drew's phone rang. He answered on sill, continuing to nod at the photos.

"It's Vim. I'm outside but I don't see your car."

I parked around the corner.

"Why? Should I?"

Doesn't matter. Listen—would you call back in one minute?

Drew casually switched his PDR's ringer on; and when Vim called back it chirped out loud.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Shipley." He had been about to say "Rhonda," but swallowed it. "That's probably the photographer."

"Photographer?" she said blankly, reverting to her earlier, tranquilized manner.

"You didn't mention a photographer on the phone," said her husband, sitting a little straighter.

Drew held up a finger apologetically and took the call. "Drew Dunkel here," he said, standing up and turning away slightly from the Shipleys, like an important reporter protecting the confidentiality of his conversations.

"Huh?" said Vim.

"Yes, hello," said Drew, making a confirmatory face over his shoulder for the Shipleys. "Yes, that's right. Well, only if you're done the other thing."

"Who are you talking to?" said Vim.

"To be quite honest I'm not sure we'll have much for you here, we haven't ... Oh, well, if you're already here."

Vim said patiently, "Drew Dunkel diddles dodos with his daddy's ding-dong."

"No, come on in. No point in your sitting in the car in the rain." Drew shrugged helplessly at the Shipleys. "Fifteen twelve, that's right. Okay."

"You didn't say anything about a photographer on the phone," said Gerard Shipley in the exact same tone.

"Well, the paper sends them out more or less automatically to any story. It's a union thing, you know—to keep them busy."

The doorbell rang.

"I'm not sure what you'll take photographs of," said Gerard Shipley, standing and looking around.

"That's what I told him. He'll probably want ... No, don't get up. I'll ..."

"The house is a mess," said Rhonda Shipley in a small voice, clutching her housecoat.

"My condolences to you both," said Vim, holding up his kit, somewhat ambiguously, perhaps to prove that he was what Drew said he was, or perhaps by way of apologizing for not shaking hands with the bereaved. "Could we see Nathan's bedroom?"

Rhonda Shipley flapped her hands and looked at her husband. "Well, I ... There's nothing to see, it's really more of a guest bedroom now. We converted it."


Gerard Shipley looked pained. Drew explained diplomatically: "Nathan'd been living downstairs, in the basement, for the last several months."

"Well, that's what I want, then. Can we see the basement?"

Rhonda looked again at her husband.

Gerard, perhaps embarrassed to be impeding what he saw as Vim's brisk, unsentimental professionalism, hung his head slightly as he explained, "That's where he ..." He lifted his head and made an effort to be clinical and frank—though Drew noticed the passive voice, so much like Harmon speaking at a police newser: "That's were he was found. That's where it happened."

"I can manage on my own," said Vim, "if you'll just show me the way."

"You can get through the laundry room," said Rhonda, and led the way, almost eagerly, relieved to have a definite task.

Drew hung back with Gerard and tried to look stoical, as if none of this could be helped. Gerard Shipley had lost some of his stiffness; his head was lolling, as if no longer firmly attached to his torso. Looking at him, Drew realized that he was the familiar-looking man in the photos. He had shaved his mustache off, and by the look of his raw lip, fairly recently.

Perhaps he too was recollecting his youth.

"Was it you who found him?" asked Drew.

"No." He stared at Drew for a moment, as if trying to place him. "No. My wife."

"Was it ... very bad?"

Shipley looked at him like he was an idiot, then his face went slack again. "Yes. There was a lot of blood."

After a minimal but still respectful pause, Drew asked point blank: "A gun, was it?"

Gerard shook his head violently, just once, as if trying to shake something out of his hair. "No, you don't understand. I mean it was everywhere, splashed all about, he'd gone ..."

He broke off as his wife returned. She was dressed. The men stared at her in silence, as people in intense conversation will sometimes stare at an interruption, as if confused by it. Self-consciously she looked down at herself and laughed hoarsely and explained to Drew: "It's what I wore to the ... morgue I guess you'd call it. It's the closest I've got to anything black. I can't decide whether it's obscene to wear grey to a funeral or whether I'll have to go out and pick something up. I don't really feel up to it. And I feel rather grey, to be honest. Not quite black, yet. Though I imagine that will change with time." She looked at Drew inquisitively, as if consulting his expertise.

"Yes," he said. The words "I feel rather grey" had jumped at him; he could see them in print. Now he would not have to stupidly ask them how they felt. Coming from a layman, such a question could only be superfluous and tactless. "How the hell do you think I feel?" was the sort of response you could expect. But a reporter couldn't assume; he had to ask. He had to ask the dumbest questions, the ones whose answers were obvious to everyone, so that he could actually print those obvious answers—print them with the dumb questions deleted, so that they looked like spontaneous declarations, the verbalized outpouring of raw emotion. Drew had seen a story on the Marc-Reuters feed a few days ago about a man in Lebanon or wherever it was who'd been attacked by a group of machete-wielding nutbats. The deck had been simply a quote from the victim: THEY CUT OFF MY ARMS. Drew had to tip his hat to the reporter who had elicited that grisly phrase. What stubborn stupidity it must have required! He could imagine them clustered around the poor fucker's hospital bed, shouting questions at him: "Hey, what happened to you? What did it feel like? What did they do to you?" What the fuck does it look like, you shitmeat morons! They cut off my fucking arms! "... And how did that feel?"

Of course, you had to ask; but he didn't relish playing the insensitive idiot. Now he could avoid it.

A long silence fell. Gerard ambled to the window and stood looking out. "It cleared up a little while ago, on the freeway," he muttered.

Drew gave Rhonda his stoical look, his lower lip pressed against his upper teeth in a determined way. It suddenly seemed pointless to go on with the interview. Neither of them were in the mood for talking with the other around, and he could see no way of separating them. And anyway it was obviously a suicide. The photographs had somehow proved it to him. Nathan Shipley did not look like the sort of kid to get himself murdered; he didn't have the guts.

He wondered what Gerard Shipley had been going to say, then decided it was no mystery. He'd heard of other messy suicides, the angry ones. They slit their wrists then flailed all around, cursing and spraying the white walls with their blood like they were pissing on everything they hated. What had Rhonda Shipley said? The world made him sick—something like that; he could check the recording. There was a lot of blood. That would explain why the police were perplexed, or anyway reluctant to come back too quickly with the verdict of suicide. Drew had spoken to Billie that morning; she was backed up as usual and would not get to Nathan Shipley's autopsy for several days. But he knew now what she would come back with. He could go to print with what he had. He could put the story to bed.

But what was the story here? Was Nathan Shipley just another fucked-out, starched-off kid who killed himself to get even with the world that he despised, soiling his own parents' basement with his blood, fouling their lives with his hate and his death? Somehow Drew could not believe that that was all there was to it.

"I'm the same at airports," said Rhonda Shipley, lost in her own thoughts.

Drew almost said, "Huh?"

"I never cry," she elaborated, but as if talking to herself. "It doesn't feel like goodbye at the time. For the longest time, in fact ..."

The story, perhaps, lay elsewhere—not in Nathan Shipley's death, but in his life. Drew still did not know what kind of boy he had been. His parents themselves probably did not know. But Drew could find out. He could talk to the boy's friends, the people who really knew him. He could do that much for Rhonda, and Gerard.

It would be an unusual story, more an elegy than a police report. But that was good. That was precisely what he wanted: something different. Something human. Something that mattered.

He was still mentally outlining the story when Vim returned to the room. "All done. Now all I'll need is a snap of you two."

"Of us?" said Rhonda.

"I'm not sure we want our photo taken," said Gerard, turning away from the window.

"It's okay," said Vim in his bluff, bad-cop manner, as if their reluctance were just part of the script, one that could be hurried through. "Just be yourselves. You can't do anything wrong."

The Shipleys each sought Drew's gaze. Drew nodded stoically.

Vim told Gerard to try putting a hand on his wife's shoulder. He did so reluctantly; and Drew knew that the expression of awkward discomfort that crossed both their faces would look, when the photo was published, a lot like grief.

"Your name," said Rhonda Shipley when she showed them to the door. "'Dunkel.' It's German, isn't it?"

"No," he said. "I don't think so."

"Oh. I thought it was."

"No. It's American."

He puzzled over this all the way back to the office. Germany again. What had she been trying to say? What was the significance?