Sunday, 12 September 2004
The drive up to the posh neighborhood of Alta Quivira in the foothills was always a bit like traveling to a charmed world which kept its enchantment well-hidden. Within this set-apart realm, there wasn’t much to see as the streets snaked in gentle curves like paths through a desert Zen garden landscape. Yet the Sun appeared brighter there; the sky cleaner, the air aromatic in any season, and now, with the chill, was filled with the incense-like perfume of burning pi�on.
The gated enclave held a private community as exclusive as any magical kingdom. Adobe mansions were discreetly hidden behind dense green clumps of pi�on and juniper bushes, banked earthen walls, massive wooden gates and fancy ironwork. But Doña Imelda’s sprawling hacienda crowning the highest hill could not be concealed completely.
Her high-beamed salon was as packed with rustic furniture and Indian carpets as any touristy trading post on the plaza. One wall was covered with a full company of Spanish saints facing an opposite one of Indian kachinas. Scattered niches and every flat surface held pottery or figurines. A few were flaming polychrome, others stark black and white, but every piece was of the highest quality. The sole regional artistic motifs absent were bloody crucifixes and crosses.
The effect could be overpowering, for Doña Imelda’s late husband Bernard was a leading art dealer with a collector’s itch, exquisite taste, and an open excuse for indulgence. Allie’s admiration of the bazaar broke off when the grand dame herself hobbled into the room.
Imelda was a tiny comma of a woman, bent further by the huge pieces of turquoise and silver jewelry she bore. As dowager empress of the local art scene, her walker was also covered in beads and feathers.
The old lady’s tanned face was a wreath of smiling wrinkles. “Darlings,” she said after hugs in her thick, unidentifiable Eastern European accent. “I hoped you’d come visit me. I wanted to talk, but at the funeral with those freaks�” she waved her hand, bracelets clinking.
“It was crazy, Auntie,” Allie said. “Too many people, not a good time.”
“Yet the situation’s crazier now, as my new headgear indicates.” Gus knelt on one knee to let her see the bandages. He crouched, looking her in the eye. “Doña Imelda, you’re our folks’ closest remaining friend. We thought if anybody could give us an insight about what’s really happening, it would be you. There’s nobody else we can turn to.”
“The enchiladas I smell have nothing to do with it,” Skip added. The old lady cackled and pinched his cheek.
Later, after enjoying a well-served, lavish Mexican feast, Gus relished retelling the story over coffee. “I swear, if I hadn’t found the sign, I would’ve thought it was a bad joke, the guy’s name and everything. Then this.” He touched his bandage.
“There’s no accounting for gentile craziness, or humor. Maybe the fellow appeared that way to make you seem crazy when you told people about him, Augie, dear.”
“What’s the old phrase, ‘gilding the lily’?” Skip asked.
“Now Skip, your brother could have been hurt badly or killed,” Imelda said.
“Vandalism I almost expected,” Gus said. “But the walking Madonna can be bought in a dozen tourist shops in Bellegraal, and almost nowhere else. That’s where the symbols are from, too. Like a web, the weirdness radiates from there.”
Skip agreed, “It’s like they’re taunting us. But we don’t know what the joke is.”
“Or if foul play was involved with Dad’s death,” Gus added. “I’m still getting the run around from the police. The medical investigator says he undoubtedly died from a heart attack but refuses to sign off. The feds are even more close-lipped.”
Allie asked, “What should we do, Auntie?” “It’s your decision, children,” the old woman said, “but your parents had to make the same choice, you know, before you were born. They chose to turn their backs on the Jesus Pot and build a new life here.”
Her eyes gleamed wetly as she recalled. “Your mother, Maureen, oh, such a sweet dear. You’re her spitting image, Alix, I’ve always said, and you should dress more like her, be elegant, attractive, not in hiding in these dark bags. What are you, a nun? A Muslim? Feh.
“Your father did the best thing taking her away from that awful Fatamorgana fellow. So full of himself, he was, you wouldn’t believe, and cold as a fish. He never forgave the pair of them for running off together, either.” She paused, gazing at the fire, before speaking with quiet deliberation. “James had a pretty low opinion of the ‘Maestro’ character, but never thought the man had anything to do with her death. He suspected others, but who, I never knew.”