Bernice McGraw may be a little naïve, but she’s not dumb. She’s a smart woman, and it doesn’t take her long to realize her options are wide open.
She stands at the window facing the view, but I can tell she’s not registering anything beyond what she sees through her mind's eye. I know she's imagining a future far different than the one she ever thought she'd have before getting that letter from the lawyer.
Looking at my reflection in the window glass, she says, “I’m tired of running blind in a house of mirrors, wondering how to get out, Marty. No matter which way I turn, I just end up right back where I started. If I weren't so blinded by my own damn gullibility, I know I'd see a woman I don’t recognize looking back at me. I'd see the woman Mike McGraw calls his wife, the woman he wants me to be. What about the woman I want to be?With a look of resolution on her face, she turns to face me. “I want to talk to Mike. Would you please bring him up here?”
“Not unless I stay, too, Bernie,” I tell her.
When I left McGraw in the lobby under the watchful eyes of the building manager and the doorman, he was one outraged and dangerous man. I don’t think leaving him alone with Bernie would be a good idea.
“I’ll be fine,” she insists. “You can wait outside if you want, but I need to talk to him alone.”
She’s probably right, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it.
I head down to the lobby, wondering what I’m going to find. McGraw had looked close to the boiling point when I left. But when I step off the elevator, the only person I see is Al, standing behind his desk reading the newspaper. Joe Kimball and Mike McGraw are nowhere in sight. I immediately picture wild fisticuffs, ending with one or both heading to the hospital.
“Joe’s in his office. That jerk McGraw blustered around here for a while, swearing and threatening to punch out everyone and everything from me to that pillar over there. Did I tell you I used to box a bit in my Army days? I took the all-Army middleweight championship back in the day.” He gives a bark of a laugh. “If he’d gotten into it with me, no kidding, it wouldn’t have gone well for him. Anyway, then he just stormed off. Said he was going back to LA and that he’d deal with his wife later.
“I gotta tell you, Marty, I don't like a bit of it. That guy’s dangerous, if you ask me.”
“I hear you, Al. I better go tell Bernie. She wanted to talk to him.”
“Well, you tell her she’s safe here. That apartment’s pretty secure, and besides, he comes back here, he’s gotta go through me. Not gonna fucking happen, pardon my French.”
When I get back upstairs and tell Bernie that Mike has taken off, she’s not surprised.
“He’s basically a coward, Marty,” she says from the couch where she is sipping another cup of tea. “That’s why I’m not really afraid of him. He’s all talk.”
“You need to take care, Bernie. One of these days, he’s likely to snap. I’ll travel back to LA with you, and go with you to make sure he’s calmed down, if you want.”
“I appreciate having you in my corner, but I really don’t think you need to worry. I’ve been living with his tantrums for years. He always calms down. But thanks. You really are one of the good guys, Marty.”
“Oh, pshaw… Besides, you’re paying me, remember.” I give her an exaggerated look of horror. “You are paying me, right?”
She laughs. “Yes, of course.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“I think I’m going to stay here a few days. I took a couple of days off for this trip, but I have vacation time coming – I mean, who gets to take a vacation? – so I’m going to call in and take some of it. I work in a big office. They’ll never miss me.”
She leans forward and picks up the note from the tray. “Besides, I want to meet with Louise Fennimore and find out what she has to tell me. And I want more time to explore the apartment. I want to get to know my mother, you know?
“You go on back to LA without me. I’ll be fine.”
Before I leave, I stop in the office downstairs and have a chat with the building manager.
“I doubt that he’ll come back, Marty,” Kimball assures me. “But even if he does, he’ll never get past Al or the other doorman. We’ll see to that. Not to worry, she’s in good hands with us.”
I feel myself relaxing at his words.
“Marjorie was a wonderful woman, and a dear friend to all of us here at the Bernice Arms. Before she died, she let us know who the heir – or I should say, heiress – of the building was. It came as a surprise to everyone that she had another daughter out there. Somehow, she just didn’t seem the type to have a ‘love child,’ you know?” He shakes his head. "Guess you just never know. We all make mistakes when we’re young, right?
“Anyway, it was clearly important to Marjorie that Bernice be welcome here. And what Marjorie wanted, we want. We’ll take care of her. After all,” he chuckles, “her name is on the front of the building.”
While I have some time with Kimball, I decide to ask about Mark Mitchum.
“He’s called Bernie several times, Joe. She said it sounded like he was poking around for information about her plans. She’s nervous about it, said it felt like he was harassing her.”
“Oh, he’s harmless, I think,” Kimball says. “I have a feeling that his nose is a little out of joint that he didn’t inherit the building. I suspect he always thought it was his. Al says he hung around here a lot as a kid. He has a real thing for that garden upstairs.
Reassured, I thank Kimball, say my goodbyes, and head for the airport.
Back in LA, I fill Harry in on Bernie’s adventures in San Francisco. His eyes widen and he gives a little whistle when I describe the Bernice Arms.
“An eleventh floor garden? You gotta be shitting me.”
“I kid you not. It’s beautiful. You should see it, Harry. In fact, the whole place is beautiful, even if she is a little time-worn. She reminds me of those grand old dames of another era.”
“Yeah, I know, it sounds a little precious. But there’s something about that building that just… She has heart. She's seen things. You can just tell, you know?”
Harry laughs. “Heart, huh? Nah, can’t say that I do know, but I’ll take your word for it.
His laughter stops when I tell him about our little visit from Mike McGraw.
“I knew that guy was trouble. Didn’t I tell you? You sure he came back here when he charged out?
“No. I’m not,” I say. “But I'm pretty sure he can’t get to her up there unless she wants him to. And he is her husband, after all.”
“Yeah, but it still makes me twitchy. Bernie's a sweet kid.”
Harry chews his bottom lip for a moment. “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do. First thing, I’m going to make sure he’s here.”
“Then, I’m going to give him a real look-see and see what I can dig up. If that marriage blows up in her face, and I’m guessing it will, I want her to be able to defend herself.”
I know if there’s anything to find, Harry will find it. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, Bernie will know everything there is to know about Mike McGraw.
Posted for River of Mnemosyne Challenge No. 5, Muse 8: "Running Blind in a House of Mirrors"