(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[ "I was pretty sure now that I knew what had happened and by whom."]
I awoke the next morning quite early and laid in bed for some time reviewing everything in my head and convinced that I needed to visit Lorraine Engle as soon as possible. I had not seen Catherine’s ghost for several days, but I had developed the habit of speaking to her before I went to bed, and sometimes in the morning. Maybe, I thought, she knows precisely what I’m doing, each and every day. As I dressed, I told Catherine: “Don’t give up. I’ve almost figured it out.”
After eating breakfast, I called the Engle residence. I had decided that I could not be as open with Eileen Engle as I had been with David’s mother. Ruth Fuller and I had a lot in common: both working mothers who had raised two children and retired early. But Lorraine Engle and I had absolutely nothing in common. I thought it would be harder to reach her woman-to-woman or mother-to-mother. Instead, I would approach her as a friend of her daughter’s and see if her motherhood instincts would permit her to be honest.
The phone rang three times before someone answered. It was a male voice, presumably a butler. “Engle residence,” he said formally.
“Good morning,” I said cheerfully. “I wonder if I might speak to Mrs. Lorraine Engle.”
“Of course. Who’s calling, please?”
“That name’s not familiar. Does Mrs. Engle know you?”
“No, she doesn’t. I’m a friend of her daughter’s and would like to speak to her about her daughter.”
“One moment, please.”
I waited for at least three minutes. Then the voice came back. “Mrs. Engle can see you today at 1:00 p.m. Would that be satisfactory?”
“Of course. One o’clock.”
I hung up the phone feeling somewhat dismayed. I hadn’t asked for an appointment, only a conversation on the phone. I wondered how much Lorraine Engle already knew, and I wondered even more what might be in store for me. I spent the rest of the morning doing household chores and trying to imagine my interview with Lorraine Engle. I knew I was in for a power struggle with a woman who usually got her way.
I dressed carefully, wanting to make a good impression. I might not be as rich as Lorraine Engle, but I could look the part. My mother’s words echoed in my brain: “Always make a good first impression, Dorthea.” So I put on the best suit I had: a blue suede felt pair of pants and a matching jacket, coordinated with a white blouse with blue stripes. I chose a nice pair of conservative earrings, and decided to keep my rings to only three fingers. Off I went (by bus, of course) to meet Mrs. Lorraine Engle.
The Engles’ home was near David’s and Eileen’s. I found it easily and arrived ten minutes early. The butler showed me into a very large room, so different than the room where I met Ruth Fuller, that one would think I was on a different planet. This looked much like Eileen’s “waiting room”; it was cold and sterile with no evidence — photographs or mementoes — to show that a family lived here and loved each other. The lamps and drapes were a bland beige color. The furniture was white provincial which didn’t go with anything else in the room.
There were no flowers, no vases, no area rugs, no sparks of colour. The hardwood floor was of a dark wood, but well polished. I thought I would only wait here a short time and then join Lorraine Engle in a more comfortable, less cold, setting. But I was mistaken. Before I had had time to look over the room carefully, Lorraine Engle walked in — followed immediately by Eileen and her father, Vern Engle. I was not surprised to see that Eileen had run home to her parents — and had been hiding there ever since — but her presence meant that her mother knew exactly who I was and what I had been doing for the last few months.
“Eileen, how nice to see you! How are you feeling? I’m so glad you’re safe.” I stepped forward and tried to touch her, perhaps even give her a hug, but she pulled away from me.
“I’m fine, Dorthea, thanks,” she mumbled and then immediately passed me by and sat down. The Engles positioned themselves across from me on one of the couches: Vern Engle on the left, Eileen in the middle, and Lorraine on the right. I sat on the opposite-facing couch, feeling somewhat vulnerable and certainly outnumbered.
“Well,” I said, “how nice it is to meet you. Eileen has talked about you a great deal.” It was a lie, of course.
Lorraine Engle was a woman in control. She wore a tidy black suit and black shoes. At least seventy-five pounds overweight, and standing 5’10” tall, she was an imposing figure. She immediately took over. "Mrs. Parsons — "
“Please, call me Dorthea.”
“Dorthea,” she hesitated, “why did you want to see us?”
That‘s a funny question, I thought. First of all, I had never said I wanted to see all of them, not even her alone. It could be that Eileen had told her about my visits, but she couldn’t know about my visits to the doctor or to Tats.
“Well,” I said, “I was really worried about Eileen. I helped her get to the women’s shelter, you know, and I was upset when I heard that she had left. I’m so glad to see her here.” It seemed odd to talk about Eileen as though she wasn’t there, but Lorraine seemed to force things in that direction.
“Yes, she told us about you. She said you had been helpful. I got her away from the shelter. I didn’t think that was a good place for her to be. She belongs here, with her parents, with family.”
“I agree. There’s nothing more soothing than a mother’s love.” I looked at Eileen, hoping that my face showed no trace of irony. “Are you glad you’re here, Eileen?”
Eileen looked like a lost puppy. “Yes,” she said hesitatingly, chewing on a fingernail, and then looking at her mother. Mr. Engle said nothing. He seemed bored, as though he wondered why he was even here. Dressed in a conservative dark suit and blue tie, he looked as though he had come from his office.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Mr. Engle. I feel privileged that you were willing to take time from your work just to visit me.”
Mr. Engle frowned. “My wife requested my presence. I didn’t want to be here, Mrs. Parsons. I’m a busy man. But our daughter has told us about you. We want to know your agenda. Are you seeking payment of some sort?”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the question. People who have money always assume that money is a person’s only motive. Still, I was disappointed, as I had hoped to find some redeeming qualities in Eileen’s parents. “No, of course not,” I said indignantly. “I’m sorry if you thought I would.”
Vern Engle seemed relieved. “Well, then, I don’t suppose I’m needed here.” He got up to leave, and his wife and daughter didn’t budge. I said the usual polite niceties of farewell, and then he was gone. Eileen and Lorraine both looked at me as though it was up to me to continue the conversation.
“Well, I’m sorry that you thought I might seek money from you for helping Eileen. I would never have done such a thing. I guess Eileen doesn’t know me well enough yet.” I smiled at Eileen and she smiled back.
“Then exactly what is your agenda, Mrs. Parsons?” Lorraine Engle had gone back to a more formal address. Her body posture was defiant: She crossed her arms over her ample bosom, and her eyes seemed cold and distant.
Instead of answering Mrs. Engle’s impertinent question — I had no agenda except to help — I turned directly to Eileen. “How are you? What are you going to do? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Eileen said nothing, but her mother had no such difficulty. “My daughter is fine, Mrs. Parsons, and she doesn’t need you. She has her mother.” She uncrossed her arms and put one hand on Eileen’s thigh. I suppose she intended to make it look endearing, but it had a feel of a threat, as though she would pinch or squeeze Eileen’s leg if she said anything incorrectly.
I looked again at Eileen. “Are you all right?”
Again, the answer came from Mrs. Engle. “I already told you that, Mrs. Parsons. Now, if there is nothing further you wish to discuss, Eileen and I have things to do.” She started to move forward in her seat, and she took Eileen’s hand. I realized that, if I didn’t say something a bit more confrontational that my conversation was nearly over and I would learn nothing.
“What happened to your granddaughter, Mrs. Engle? What happened to Catherine?”
Lorraine Engle moved back down into her seat. She let go of her daughter’s hand. “You already know what happened.”
“I’d like to hear what you have to say.”
“There’s nothing to say. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy. Catherine fell at school. Later that day she had internal bleeding in the brain. By the time my daughter realized that something was wrong, it was too late. Eileen has been devastated ever since she lost her daughter. On top of that, she has had to deal with an abusive husband.”
So, I thought,* the story is the same everywhere I go, at least when it’s the family talking. Only the doctor and the drug dealer are prepared to suggest otherwise.*
“That’s interesting, Mrs. Engle, because I’m getting a different story.”
“That doesn’t matter.” I glared at her, one of my best teacher glares. “But there is some evidence to suggest that Catherine never fell, at least not at school. It’s more likely, in fact, that she was pushed or shoved and then fell, or that someone pushed her to the floor and she banged her head on the floor. And this, more than likely, happened at home.”
“That’s outrageous!” Lorraine shouted. “Where did you ever get such an idea?”
“From your daughter. She told me that David often hit your granddaughter.”
Eileen sat like a little mouse, pale and silent. Mrs. Engle took a deep breath and appeared to be calm. “Yes, there is a possibility that David hurt Catherine. But we have no proof.”
“Wouldn’t Eileen’s word be enough?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mrs. Parsons. Eileen, as you can plainly see, is incompetent, mentally unstable. Her testimony would mean nothing.”
“Eileen,” I said, trying to get eye contact with, “do you believe that? Are you incompetent? You told me once that David hurt Catherine. Do you still believe that?”
Eileen said nothing. But she started to shake her head from side to side. Which question is she answering? I wondered.
Before I could ask again, Mrs. Engles interrupted. “Mrs. Parsons, that will be enough! Eileen is in no shape to talk to you. I thought she might feel better if she saw you, someone who has been her friend, but you’re merely upsetting her.”
Once again, I thought it was necessary to re-direct the conversation. It was obvious that Eileen was even more frightened now than she had been at David’s, and I was beginning to ponder the possibility that she had run from David (where she might have been safe) into the arms of her mother (where she clearly wasn’t safe). The irony was obvious.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset anyone, least of all Eileen.” I paused and watched Mrs. Engle. She seemed to relax a little. “Tell me, do you think anyone else might have hurt Catherine besides your son-in-law?”
“And who on earth might that be?” she retorted angrily.
“I don’t know, but the doctor who took care of Catherine said she had been mistreated. He also said that he thought Catherine might have been accidentally killed, perhaps while someone was trying to discipline her. Did you often take care of Catherine, Mrs. Engle?”
Lorraine seemed surprised by the question. “Me? Take care of Catherine? Why, yes, of course I did. What are you suggesting?”
“Nothing, really. I just wondered if you were one of those grandmothers who loves to spoil her granddaughter.”
“Yes, I did.” She looked at Eileen, but Eileen was still staring at me with big saucer-like eyes. “But Catherine was not always a quiet, obedient child. She was difficult to manage”
“Really?” I said, showing honest surprise. “Everyone I have talked to said she was wonderful. Her teachers, Eileen, the neighbours. What did she do that was disobedient?”
There was a pause in the conversation. Eileen, still silent, turned towards her mother. The look on her face said: “Yes, Mother, just how was Catherine disobedient?”
Lorraine looked at her daughter. “Don’t look at me that way, Eileen. I didn’t treat Catherine any differently than I did you. Sometimes Catherine needed disciplining, and you were never willing to do it.”
Lorraine turned to me and said, “Catherine sometimes refused to do what she was told. If she was playing with her dolls and she was told to come to supper, she wouldn’t come. You’d have to call her several times. When it was time to go to bed, she’d be very slow about it!”
I didn’t want to get too hopeful, but I had a feeling that, at long last, I might be speaking to Catherine’s abuser, perhaps even her killer. I tried to keep calm and make my questions clear and non-threatening. “So you were over at the apartment often, Mrs. Engle? Did you often see Catherine displaying this behaviour? Did Eileen discipline her daughter effectively?”
“Of course not! Eileen proved to be a completely useless mother. She would just ask Catherine to behave, and she would never insist that the child needed to be more responsive.”
Eileen had winced at being called a “useless mother,” but she still did not defend herself, nor did she attack her mother’s verbal abuse. From where I sat, it appeared that Eileen was not only terrified of her mother, but also too weak to break out from under her control.
“So you took over for Eileen, did you?”
“Of course!” She said it as though it was so obvious that even someone as stupid as I was should be able to figure it out.
“What did you do?”
“Sometimes she needed a good slap. Sometimes I spanked her with a wooden spoon. Sometimes I made her sit in the corner. None of it worked. Catherine was a very stubborn child, just like her mother.”
“What about the night Catherine died? Were you there that day?”
“I had been there in the morning, and I had helped Catherine get ready for school. Eileen had not felt well, and I had come over to help out.”
“Was Catherine slow and difficult that morning?”
“Yes, she was.”
“Did you slap her that morning?”
Eileen looked at me. Then she looked at her mother. Before her mother could respond, she said, “Yes, she did.“
Lorraine Engle turned her wrath on her daughter: “Eileen! How do you know? You were in the bedroom!”
“No, I wasn’t, Mother. I was right there. And you slapped Catherine and then you pushed her. And she hit her head on the floor really hard. I could hear it. You killed her, Mother! Not then, not at that moment. But you killed her!”
Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Eileen began pounding her mother’s chest with her fists, and Lorraine tried to fend off the blows. I stood up and grabbed at Eileen, pulling her with me to the floor. She calmed quickly enough, and Mrs. Engle looked frazzled but all right. The physicality of the moment seemed to stop all other thoughts and we said nothing for several minutes as we all caught our breath. Slowly, I helped Eileen off the floor. She sat back down on the couch, beside her mother, and I returned to my seat. Eileen looked a little less fragile now. Lorraine looked pale, but certainly not defeated.
Finally, I said, “Is that true, Mrs. Engle? Did Catherine fall that morning after you slapped her?”
“Maybe. I don’t remember.”
“It’s true, Mother. You slap her and Catherine did fall!” Eileen said it with confidence, but I wasn’t too sure I believed her. After all, she had said the same thing about David.
“Well, Eileen, if your mother did do what you say she did, it could be considered an accident. But, worse still, is that you have told so many stories that I’m not sure anyone is going to believe you now.”
Mrs. Engle seemed satisfied with that comment. I think she thought I was on her side, which I wasn’t, but I felt that we were once again at a standstill. I kept thinking about my nephew’s comment that you had to have forensic proof or a good witness. I still had no proof that would stand up in a court of law, and Eileen was just about the most unstable witness I could think of. I had no more tricks up my sleeve. Short of a complete confession from Lorraine Engle, I was convinced she’d never be charged. All three of us remained silent for quite some time, somewhat wrapped up in our thoughts. I finally broke it off by saying that I thought it was time for me to leave. Eileen looked at me as though I was leaving her in the desert without any water. In a way, I felt the same, but I didn’t know what else to do.
“Will you be staying here?” I asked Eileen.
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather be at the shelter?”
As long as Eileen was under her mother’s influence, there would be little progress in her emotional development. As well, Mrs. Engle would continue to brainwash her daughter about what happened the day Catherine died. Eileen would never be able to testify effectively.
“She’s not well,” Mrs. Engle said. “As long as she needs her parents, she will be welcome in our home. You may come to visit Eileen, if you wish, but there will be no more talk about Catherine’s death. It only upsets her.”
“Of course,” I said, knowing that it was unlikely that I would come again.
We said our good-byes and I left, feeling quite convinced that my investigation into Catherine’s death had just hit rock bottom, even though I was pretty sure now that I knew what had happened and by whom. I rode home on the bus, defeated and sad. When I got home, a message was waiting for me on my voice mail. “Call me,” my nephew said. “I’ve got news.”
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.