(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["After exchanging niceties, discussing our careers and retirement, and agreeing to call each other by our first names, the serious part of our conversation began."]
The very next day was my usual tea visit with Miss Hattie, so I went downstairs at the usual time and we settled into our regular routine. I told her all that had happened since my previous visit, including the visit to both the doctor and the drug dealer.
“My, my, Dorthea. What an amazing job you’re doing. What next?” Her look was teacher-like disapproving, concern for me obviously etched in her face.
I took a sip of my tea. “I’ve decided that it would be best to go see David’s parents first since I think it’s most likely they are not the abusive ones. Eileen has all the signs of someone who has been abused: she frequently lies to cover up for her mother. She’s afraid and timid, but she apparently tried to protect her daughter.“
“Well, she obviously didn’t do the greatest job there. I struggle with the idea of abused children or wives supporting their abusers. How does that happen?”
I nodded my head. “You must have seen it in teaching. I certainly did.”
“Yes, though in my day it wasn’t as common to reveal these things.”
I took another sip of my tea.
“One of the worst cases of child abuse I ever dealt with involved a young Grade 8 boy who told me, innocently enough, one day: 'I’m never going to be late to school again.' I asked him why, and he said 'Cause my dad gave me the belt.' I didn’t pry for more information than that, but I immediately reported it. The social worker, who investigated the case said that both boys had been severely beaten with a belt buckle on a regular basis. She said she had never seen a worse case. Yet when she told my student and his little brother that they would be moving to another home, the boys cried and said they didn’t want to be taken away from their parents. The social worker told them that their father’s way of disciplining them was not right, and the older boy said to her, ‘He’s my dad. He’s always been like that. I don’t want to leave.‘“
Miss Hattie drank the last of her tea and asked me if I wanted more. I shook my head. “That’s a sad story. Did you ever learn what happened to the children?”
“No, unfortunately. The family moved away, and I never knew what foster home the boys were put in.”
“So what do you know about the Fullers? I know you told me before, but I can’t remember.”
I smiled, fully understanding the tendency to forget things as we get older. “David Fuller’s father, Wendall, is a professor at Simon Fraser University. His mother, Ruth, is a retired nurse. They’re not as wealthy as the Engles, but they have been successful by most standards, and Professor Fuller is, from all I can learn, a respected and popular teacher. David is their only son, but they also had a daughter, Marilyn. I couldn’t find out much information about her, but I‘m guessing that, as in most families, a lot of the parents’ expectations were thrust on David, the only son. Since he became a successful lawyer, I figure that the Fullers are proud of him. His recent arrest, however, must have been a huge shock.“
Miss Hattie and I finished our tea and I said good-bye.
I immediately returned to my apartment, hoping that I would be able to reach the Fullers and make an appointment with them. I had already decided that I would admit who I was. Jeff had told me that David had been staying with them since he had been released on bail. I thought it best that David not be there when visited.
Mrs. Fuller answered the phone when I called and, although a little dubious at first about meeting me, I somehow managed to convince her that I might be on her side. (After all, if I proved that Mrs. Engle was the abuser, David would be exonerated.) She invited me over within the hour.
I dressed casually, not wanting to make a false impression of who I was or how important I was, and then I left. The Fullers lived near Deer Lake, a large park area in Burnaby, and obviously a shorter drive for Mr. Fuller to SFU than if they lived in Vancouver. I took the skytrain to Metrotown, and then switched to Bus #144 to ride to Deer Lake. The Fullers lived on Buckingham, a short street within a new neighbourhood with large single-family homes. It wasn’t as huge or as ostentatious as their son’s home, but it was large and appeared comfortable.
Mrs. Fuller let me in within seconds of my ringing the bell. She must have been waiting for me.
“Mrs. Parsons?” she asked as she opened the door.
“Yes, of course. Mrs. Fuller?”
“Yes. Please, Mrs. Parsons, do come in.”
Ruth Fuller was a petite woman, shorter than me, and had short dark hair. I guessed that she and I were of a similar age. She wore jeans, which did not compliment her large frame, a short-sleeved, blue cotton blouse, and black slippers. She looked comfortable, but not relaxed. She led me to a large living room which was very cluttered with family photographs, athletic trophies (presumably won by their children), and knick-knacks.
The room was obviously the family’s favorite. A large black Labrador retriever lay curled up on a rug in the corner, sound asleep. Two large couches and two large chairs, all in matching upholstery, dominated the room. The hardwood floors looked recently polished, and an enormous Turkish area rug lay between the two couches. Large windows facing west brought in the afternoon light. A fireplace looked somewhat cold and uninviting, as there was no fire, but on the coffee table Mrs. Fuller had already placed a pot of tea, cups and saucers, and a plate of cookies. After exchanging niceties, discussing our careers and retirement, and agreeing to call each other by our first names, the serious part of our conversation began.
“Just what is it you wanted to talk to me about?” Ruth asked first.
I was getting quite used to telling this story: the move to my apartment, Catherine’s ghost, my explorations into Catherine’s death, my meetings with Eileen, and David’s eventual arrival at my home. “I‘m sorry that David was arrested, Ruth, but he did frighten me and he did seem distraught.”
“Yes, he was certainly distraught, and I‘m sorry that he went to your apartment, too.” Ruth shook her head and looked down. “David has had a lot of tough breaks in his life, but I know that that doesn’t excuse him.” She looked at me and asked, “Do you have a son, Dorthea?”
“Then you know how hard it is to raise a boy. It was much easier with our daughter, Marilyn, who never got into trouble or did anything to cause us concern. David, on the other hand, was always more hyper, less concerned about grades and school, and never sure what he wanted to do in life. From an early age, it seems to me, he was interested in girls, and when Eileen came into his life, he fell in love with her almost immediately. My husband and I thought he married too fast and too young. But David wouldn’t listen to us at all.”
I listened carefully, hoping I would glean some clues that would tell me if David was an abusive father. So far, I heard nothing but the comments of a concerned mother who perhaps overprotected her son. “I taught school, Ruth. I know that boys can sometimes be more difficult to discipline and their development is often behind that of their female counterparts. How did you and your husband deal with David’s problems?”
“We got him a private tutor to help him with his school work, and we were in constant communication with his teachers. David was mildly hyperactive, but we never felt he needed medication. If we kept him active with sports and after-school things, he usually coped.”
“But what if he didn’t behave?” I prodded again.
“Oh, we made him stay in his room, or we grounded him, or we had discussions with him. He always seemed to want to fix his behaviour, and he usually did. But it wasn’t always easy.”
“In my experience, boys respond well to calm disciplinary techniques and setting boundaries. I suspect that your taking away of privileges was a good way to go.”
“Maybe, but I wish his marriage had been happier.”
“You didn’t approve of Eileen?”
“Well, ‘not approve of her’ is a bit strong. We thought they were too young. And then Eileen got pregnant, and David wasn’t sure it was his baby. David was headed for law school, finally on a good path we thought, and we didn’t see how he was going to manage a wife and family and get through law school as well. We tried to help, even giving a bit of money to them now and then, but I think Eileen’s parents — who are certainly wealthier than us — helped them out quite a bit. We did not see David and Eileen very much after they got married. We hoped that, if they were left alone, they’d have a better chance to make a go of it.”
“And do you think they succeeded?”
“Well, they’re still married, but I know that Eileen says she wants a divorce. And, of course, the terrible tragedy of Catherine’s death almost undid Eileen.” Ruth put her head down and stared at her hands.
I knew that the death of her granddaughter had been a great blow to Ruth as well as to her daughter-in-law. To ease that suffering, I changed the topic: “Does David know where Eileen is now?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Has he heard from her?”
She shook her head.
“Where do you think she might go?”
“My guess is she’d be with her parents. They have always protected her and given her way too much. Mrs. Engle has a very strong personality, and in my view, she dominated Eileen’s life and everything that she did.”
“What do you think happened to your granddaughter?”
Ruth paused. The change in subject was perhaps a bit of a surprise to her, but I suspect that she had been asked this question many times before because her response was relatively quick. “I always believed Eileen: Catherine had fallen at school and hit her head. Apparently, internal bleeding occurred in the brain and Catherine died from that.”
“As a nurse, did you find that a plausible explanation?”
“Of course I did. I know that it can happen.”
“Ruth, I need to ask you a question and I hope you’ll be willing to answer me honestly.”
“I’ll try,” and she seemed genuinely concerned about doing the right thing.
“Do you know if anyone hit Catherine? Was it Eileen? Your son? Or anyone else?”
Ruth sighed. “No, I don’t. The police asked me that question when Catherine died, and I said the same thing I just told you. I never saw any evidence of abuse. I never thought Eileen would do such a thing, and I am positive that David did not.”
I was not surprised that Ruth Fuller would defend her only son, but I was a bit surprised that she had no other ideas of who might have harmed Catherine. “Did you see Catherine a lot?”
“Not really, no. David was busy with school, and Eileen didn’t particularly welcome my presence. Frankly, I think Eileen’s mother was there a lot, and she and I didn’t get along very well.”
“Oh, why’s that?”
“To be brutally honest, she was a snob. She didn’t think David was good enough for her daughter, and she didn’t have much use for an SFU professor and a lowly nurse. I avoided being anywhere near David and Eileen if I knew that Lorraine Engle was going to be around. I disliked her immensely.”
“Did David feel the same?”
“I think so. But Lorraine was very dominating and Eileen was insistent that they couldn’t ignore her mother.”
“So you and your husband stayed away quite a bit then?”
“As much as we could, though it hurt a lot to have so little to do with David or with my grandchild.”
Ruth and I talked for at least another thirty minutes. By the end of it, I was convinced that she was not likely to be the grandmother that Tats said he frequently saw at Eileen and David’s apartment. She seemed like a good person who had been caught up in extraordinary events. She didn’t believe her son was a dangerous person, but she did feel he had been pushed to the end of his limits.
“Did you know that David once dealt with drugs?” I asked.
Ruth’s face was expressionless. I thought this time she might lie to me. “I knew he used drugs,” she said, nodding her head slowly. “We had problems with him in high school. But I thought he had quit. How do you know he was dealing drugs?”
“Eileen told me. She sometimes delivered and picked up the drugs for his clients.”
“Oh, God,” Ruth said. “How could he do that? And with Catherine in the home, too?”
Ruth lowered her head and began to cry. I stood up and crossed over to her and sat beside her. “It’s always hard to accept the weaknesses of our children,” I said. “Like you, I think David is a good man who has been under incredible stress. I’m not sure if he’s still on drugs or dealing, but he certainly was when Catherine died.”
Ruth’s horrified expression said it all.
“No, I don’t think Catherine died because of the drugs.”
“Thank God,” Ruth muttered. “But you suspect something, don’t you? David said that you had accused him of killing Catherine. Did you?”
“Yes, I asked him if he did. You see, Eileen told me that he did. But, I’ll admit that, at other times, she has also denied his involvement. Her story changes quite frequently. Neighbours were suspicious, though. And so were the police.”
“What did David say when you asked him about it?”
“He said he never touched Catherine.”
Ruth nodded her head. “If anyone hurt Catherine, it was either Eileen or her mother.”
So there it was: a third confirmation that Eileen or her mother might be involved. However, I didn’t particularly want to share that with Ruth right now. “Actually, Ruth, I hope I can prove that Catherine died just the way everyone says she did.”
We talked for a little longer, but Ruth appeared tired and she said that she expected David home by mid-afternoon. She said he was trying to go into the office to do some work while awaiting the outcome of the charges against him. She said, as well, that David was terribly worried about Eileen and what she might do to herself. He was convinced she would attempt suicide.
I said my good-byes to Ruth and rode home on the bus and the skytrain. It seemed obvious to me that I needed to meet Lorraine Engle, although I was certainly not looking forward to it. I spent the remainder of the afternoon, trying to increase my knowledge of her through the library newspaper files. Lorraine Engle moved in the highest circles of society within Vancouver. If she was indeed an abusive mother who had harmed her own daughter as well as her granddaughter, I felt as though it would be a pleasure to bring her to justice. But I wasn’t sure yet just how I was going to achieve that. Somehow I didn’t think “Mommy Dearest” was going to talk.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.