“You don’t look like no ‘tectives on TV, Granny,” Ben had announced at his first opportunity to comment on my new career. He’d stuck one pudgy digit up his nose and pointed another one at me accusingly. “None o’ them gots white hair.”
“Stick around for a few seasons, kid. They will,” I’d answered.
What the hell. I was used to skepticism. Any veteran mother that isn’t has her goddamned ears stuffed with kumquats.
Swearing was a habit I’d picked up when Fred was alive. One day I got the impression that Fred hadn’t been listening to me for a while. Say, twenty years. So I thought I’d try a little verbal variety to see if he’d notice. At first, it was just an experiment. Then, you know, it became a challenge; tomorrow he’ll notice, I’d think. There toward the end, though, I didn’t want him to break his record. But I didn’t cheat. And Fred Caliban went to his grave believing I was the same sweet girl he’d married. Since I’d never actually been sweet, either, except in Fred’s imagination, you can see how alert he was.
It’s no wonder I’d wanted a change when Fred died. See, I had this epiphany in the women’s john at McAlpin’s Department store in downtown Cincinnati. But that’s another story — maybe I’ll tell you when I know you better. What I wanted was THE change, but I figured I’d better make my own change, since Mother Nature, like most mothers I know, was overextended and running behind.
I loved my kids as much as the next mother, but three kids and thirty-eight years of marriage didn’t seem like much to show for more than half a century. Oh, the kids came out okay, I guess, even though now that they were grown up and could tell me what to do they could be regular pains in the ass. Sharon was a successful stockbroker who had negotiated a merger with a male stockbroker as practical as she was, and they had produced one child, Benjamin, the hair color critic. As the oldest of my offspring, Sharon claimed the privileges of seniority when it came to giving me advice. My second child Jason was some kind of business executive on his third marriage and his fourth kid. You might’ve thought his own mistakes disqualified him from telling other people what to do, but he was Sharon’s ally. Then there was Franny, my favorite, who was off somewhere attending school. I lost track the fourth time she switched colleges and majors. She was the original boomerang kid: she always came home to her mother when she couldn’t think of anything else to do. The myth of the eternal return, which Franny had tried to explain to me when she was an anthropology major at Michigan, was no myth as far as I was concerned.
Then there was my better half, Fred, as dull and familiar as the Council on Dental Therapeutics statement on the Crest toothpaste tube. My generation of women didn’t think much about divorce once the initial postwar flurry died down. We didn’t expect marriage to be different with anybody else short of Rock Hudson, who was even less available than we knew. It never occurred to us to live on our own. With what? Besides, the women’s magazines were crammed with advertisements featuring lonely spinsters of thirty whose lives had been ruined because of halitosis or body odor; we were supposed to be lucky.
So with Fred gone I’d wanted a big change, and I’m not talking facelift and hair color. I wanted a new career. I’d read those articles about looking at your housekeeping skills from the perspective of work experience — accounting, management, personnel supervision, maintenance. I reassessed all my skills and surveyed the reading I’d been doing for the past twenty years. That’s how I came up with the idea of Cat Caliban Investigations, a private inquiry agency.
Hell, I’d investigated things all my adult life. Who left the freezer door open so all the ice cream melted. Who left their new purple T-shirt in the washer so that everybody’s underwear turned lavender. Who drew stripes on the cat with Marks-a-Lot. Why couldn’t Fred ever think of anything to give me for my birthday.
Besides, it was the 1980s, for crissakes; women were doing all kinds of jobs.
Not that I expected to be an overnight success in the private investigation business. I figured on a training period, and anticipated a cash flow problem. I’d talked it over with my friend Louella, who had taken up real estate after her husband Art died. Louella had found me a little apartment complex to buy, four units in pink brick, a square little box of a building with an add-on office, a greenish-brown lawn, and two medium-sized spruce trees to match. Good rental history. Solid investment. I threw a yard sale at my three-story house in Wyoming — a neighborhood full of nuclear families, middle managers, and Suburbans — packed up the leftovers, and moved to Northside. Carved over the doorway in white limestone was somebody’s idea of a classy name: The Patagonia Arms. Needless to say, after I moved in, it became known among my friends as the Catatonia Arms.