The Straits of Juan de Fuca — scenes and sketches continued

October 29, 2013

Detective Porto’s first name was Dore’. The name, which I believe was after a French painter, had always sounded too “faggy” for him, so everyone called him “D” and sometimes “Ray.” He was in his late 40s, about 20 years older than me. He had two kids in college and a third with CF. He had a second mortgage on his first house in the Northwest section, a block from Forest Park, and he had a second house in Canon Beach. He was in deep, up to his eyeballs. A small man, normally thin, but lately he’d added a bit of weight. Brown hair, slightly bald, more northern Italian, urbane, ancient classical looks, as if his face could have been minted on some Roman or Etruscan coin. He was a decent guy and we always got along, but you had to understand him first, his cunning was not to be underestimated. He was a descendant of that Tuscan or Florentine gene pool which had given us Galileo, Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli . . . with Porto, it was largely Machiavelli.

The victim wore the pin of a Masonic order on the lapel of his dark suit jacket. I knew he belonged to the Masons, whose arcane rites and mysteries had kept all us non-members guessing for centuries as to what the Hermetic Order was really about. The temple stood alongside the Portland Art Museum, its stone frieze engraved with strange symbols. On Friday nights I had watched the chauffeured Lincoln Continentals, Cadillacs, Jaguars and maybe a Rolls or two pull along the Maple-lined curb of the park blocks and disgorge their passengers, mostly elderly white men in jackets and maroon fez who would then file in procession to the entrance of the temple. Whoever had dropped the victim here knew about the proximity of the temple. It may have been a clue. But if the killers were also Masons, then it seemed more likely that they may have been following some arcane protocol. Or maybe the victim had been murdered in the temple and carried the body outside, the way Thomas ‘a Becket had been murdered at Canterbury Cathedral.

Porto wiped a trail of sweat from his jaw.

“So, whaddya know about Masons, de Fuca? Freemasonry. The Masonic Order. And why are you even here? Just happened to be enjoying a burger with tomato, guacamole and alfalfa sprouts at Hamburger Mary’s?”

“The Masons had nothing to do with this,” I told him, as I continued to stare at the body. “Doesn’t look like poison. Asphyxiation maybe. But there’s no marks. Pillow? Sack? A snake or human would have left some marks.”

“Jesus, why don’t you let the coroner deal with the cause of death . . . I think the snake is somehow involved, but I don’t know how.”

“A coincidence,” I offered.

“A coincidence,” Porto said with a skeptical look. “An 8-foot Boa constrictor within spitting distance of a dead Mason near his local temple, or mosque, or church, or ashram, or meeting house, or whatever the fuck you want to call it . . . Yeah, some coincidence. And why are you here? At this particular crime scene? You left the force two years ago.”

I didn’t say anything.

Porto smiled wanly, a slight but discernible bowing of his chalky pink lips. But he looked dismayed too. We had always bantered, Porto and I, it was just something we did, and normally I might have toyed more with the existential underpinnings of his question, twisting it into some absurd joke, or truism (why are any of us here? we’re all just riding on the back of a turtle!) which would then piss him off. But I hadn’t engaged Porto this time, and he rightly sensed that something was wrong with me.

And I was lost in contemplation too, thinking what it must be like to be that snake pressed to the Earth, maneuvering every undulation and contour of the ground, sensing all vibration and tremor, the barely perceptible gradations of light and shadow, hot and cold, moisture and aridity, hard and soft. As a snake you can tell people from prey and avoid people or other animals who want to prey on you. Nothing quite escapes you unless you allow it to escape. You would make a good detective, you can’t help it, the world is being perpetually shoved in your face . . . and often within striking distance.

As they wrapped the body, I must have been staring maybe a little too hard, staring in a way that was making everyone nervous. I had to stare, thinking of all those years I’d seen him on an almost daily basis. He’d been a hard man to get to know, emotionally inaccessible, though kind and polite mainly, even friendly on rare occasions. He’d been a good poker player (I guess they would mention that in his eulogy). I had watched him many Thursday nights with several of his presumably masonic buddies seated around the octagonal beize table, a green lamp shade suspended over them, making a pleasant enclosure of smoky light and casino color. Had he ever been charming? Sometimes, if the script required it, but mostly he’d been inscrutable, aloof and indifferent, a closed book, a cipher. The man had always been something of a stranger to me, and seeing him dead now I was all the more certain of that.

Porto scrutinized me. He fished a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it.

“All day I’ve been hearing these stupid lyrics in my head. That damned Beatles song,” he complained, with a head shake, as if the head shake might dislodge the clinging words and they would tumble out of his skull and onto the ground like dice or marbles. “‘Eleanor Rigby’ . . . he said, “those lines, ‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’ but especially that last fucking line, ‘No one was saved’ I’ve been hearing that one in my head all day . . . Something wrong, Juan? You know this stiff by any chance?”

He exhaled a cloud of smoke into the warm air, waiting for me to answer.

“I do,” I told him. “The stiff was my stepfather.”

The dead man, Everett Lovejoy, and I had never been particularly close. Lovejoy for the most part had minimal paternal involvement in my life from the time I was nine until I’d left home at 18 and joined the army to escape going to jail. My mother and Everett divorced a year later. My biological father was Sanchez de Fuca, a trumpet player of some renown in Mexico, and I have no memory of him. He was reportedly very talented, handsome, charming, and a notorious womanizer. My lovely mother was a modern dance teacher at the time, and once when Sanchez played an extended gig in Portland, she had been another one of his road conquests. He’d never known that she was pregnant. My mother mentioned that she had once tried to make contact with him, so at least he would have known I existed—like he cared. My mother had constantly checked the Northwest jazz club circuit on the off chance Sanchez would be playing in one of those clubs, but to her knowledge Sanchez never played in the Northwest again (not further north than San Francisco). One time my mother had even driven the 14 hours to the Keystone in San Francisco because Sanchez was reportedly playing there, but she’d missed him by a day.

My mother’s name was Victoria and she had often told me about the choice of my name, and about her name; about the maps she’d pored over as a young girl transplanted from northern Minnesota, and also how as a young girl she had ridden the ferry from Anna Cortes to Victoria, describing the enchanted beauty and powerful spiritual awakening she’d experienced on that ferry ride. The San Juan Islands were dramatic, fantastic, and the straits this vastness. To the girl Victoria whose name would be forever linked to Vancouver Island, the passage across those straits had felt as if she was sailing to the ends of the Earth. I was named after those straits. And today I wasn’t particularly sad or emotional as I watched Everett’s body being hoisted onto the gurney. He’d been more of an unfortunate reminder of my real and eternally elusive father.

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