I said, “Simone, who’re you going to call? The police? Fine.”
Jenna said, “Put the phone down, Simone. Please.”
Angie looked bored and antsy. Patience is not one of her prime virtues. She walked over and pulled the phone cord out of the wall.
I closed my eyes, then opened them. “Jenna, I’m a private investigator, and before any of us decides to do anything else, I have to talk to you.”
Simone looked at the phone, then at Angie and me, finally at her sister. She said, “Your bed, girl, lie in it,” and sat down on the couch.
Angie sat beside her. “You have a very nice place here.”
This was true. It was small, and the outside was nothing to look at, and it wasn’t like there was a baby grand by the window, but Simone definitely had an eye. The floor had been stripped, the blonde wood underneath polished to a high gloss. The couch where Simone and Angie sat was a light cream color with an oversize throw pillow that Angie was itching to hug to her chest. Jenna sat in a mahogany shell chair to the right of the couch and I leaned on its twin across from her. Four feet from the windows the floor rose eight inches and a small alcove had been created around the two windows facing the street, cushions on the window seats, a small wooden magazine rack, a hanging plant overhead, and the wooden telephone desk. A bookcase ran the length of the half wall behind Jenna and I saw poetry by Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Amiri Baraka, plus novels by Baldwin and Wright as well as Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Pete Dexter, Walker Percy, and Charles Johnson.
I looked at Simone. “Where’d you go to school?”
She said, “Tuskegee,” a little surprised.
“Good school.” A friend of mine played ball there for a year before he found out he wasn’t good enough. I said, “Nice book collection.”
“You just surprised the nigger knows how to read.”
I sighed. “Right. That’s it, Simone.” I said to Jenna, “Why’d you quit your job?”
Jenna said, “People quit their jobs every day.”
“This is true,” I said, “but why’d you quit yours?”
She said, “I didn’t want to work for them no more. Plain and simple.”
“And when you raided their files, how plain and simple was that?”
Jenna looked confused. So did Simone. It’s possible they actually were, but then, if she had stolen the files, looking completely aware of what I was talking about probably wasn’t the best idea. Simone said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Jenna was watching me steadily, her hands kneading the fabric of her skirt. She was considering something and, for a moment, the intelligence that entered her eyes swamped all that weariness like a wave over a rowboat. Then it was gone again and the eyes dulled. She said, “Simone, I’d like to talk to this man alone for a few minutes.”
Simone didn’t like it, but after a minute or so, she and Angie went into the kitchen. Simone’s voice was loud and unhappy, but Angie has a way with loud and unhappy. You don’t live in a marriage of arbitrary rages, unfounded jealousies, and sudden accusations without growing adept at dealing with another’s hostility in a small room. When dealing with whiners or ragers of any sort those who always see themselves as victims of life’s vast conspiracy to ruin their day or are unreasonable or choking on some predictable, paltry anger Angie’s gaze grows flat and level, her head and body become as still as a statue, and the whiner or the rager vents until that gaze forces them to sputter, to weaken, to exhaust themselves. You either wither under the calm logic of it, blanch in the face of its daunting maturity, or you lash out against it, like Phil, and negate yourself. I know; I’ve been the focus of that gaze a time or two myself.
In the living room, Jenna’s eyes were fastened firmly on the floor and if she kneaded that skirt any harder the thread would begin pooling at her feet. She said, “Whyn’t you tell me why you’ve come up here for me.”
I thought about it. I’ve been wrong about people before. Several times. I go on the presumption that everyone’s full of shit until proven otherwise, and this usually serves me in good stead. But every now and then, I think a person has proven himself otherwise, only to discover the shit later, usually in painful ways. Jenna didn’t strike me as a liar. She didn’t look like she knew how, but often it’s people just like that who wouldn’t know the truth if it was wearing an ID card on its lapel.
I said, “You have certain documents. I was hired to retrieve them.” I spread my hands, palms up. “Simple as that.”
“Documents?” she said, spitting it. “Documents. Damn.” She stood and began pacing and suddenly she looked a lot stronger than her sister, a lot more determined.
She had no trouble meeting my eyes now. Hers were red and hard, and I realized, once again, that people aren’t born weary and beaten, they get that way.
She said, “Let me tell you, Mr. Kenzie” and pointed a stiff finger at me ”that’s one hell of a funny word. ‘Documents.’“Her head was down again and she was pacing in a tight circle with borders only she could see. “Documents,” she said again. “Well, OK, call them what you will. Yes, sir. Call them what you will.”
“What would you call them, Mrs. Angeline?”
“I ain’t no missus.”
“OK. What would you call them, Ms. Angeline?”
She looked at me, her whole body beginning to quiver with rage. The red of her eyes had darkened and her chin was pointed out straight and unyielding. She said, “All my life, nobody ever need me. Know what I mean?”
“Need,” she said. “Nobody ever need me. People want me, sure. For a few hours or so, a week maybe, they say, ‘Jenna clean room one-oh-five,’ or ‘Jenna, run down the store for me,’ or real sweet they say, ‘Jenna, honey, come on over here and lie down a spell.’ But then, when they done, I’m just a piece of furniture again. Don’t care if I’m around; don’t care if I ain’t. People can always find someone to clean for ‘em, or run to the store for ‘em, or lie down with ‘em.”
She walked back to her chair and rummaged through her purse until she found a pack of cigarettes. “Hadn’t smoked in ten years until a few days ago.” She lit one, blew the smoke out in a rush that clouded the small room. “Ain’t no documents, Mr. Kenzie. You understand? Ain’t no documents.”