They Called Me Margaret
I didn’t take it seriously that Carl threatened to leave me—he was feeling neglected and just trying to get my attention. For several months, I’d been spending my days planning the opening of my bookstore—The Indie Book Nook—and evenings working on my latest novel, leaving little time for him. It wasn’t the first time he’d done that—telling me he thought I loved books more than him. I brushed him off, like I’d done before, reminding him of the days when he worked as many hours bucking for his CFO position at The Garfield Group. I worked out of our home, as did he, and back then I would periodically drop in on him in the middle of the day to let him know in person that I still cared—more reassurance than I currently got from him.
I poured myself a glass of wine, retreated to the spare bedroom that I had claimed as my writing sanctuary, and stretched out on my favorite chair, a green and gray paisley chaise lounge I had picked up at an estate sale. It was May, the week before Memorial Day, the same week we always drove up for the summer from our primary home in Chicago. We had purchased the Lake Beulah house six years earlier—in 2009 when foreclosures were at an all-time high—for half of its value in today’s market. At the time, I was against it but had let Carl talk me into it, like I had with most things in our marriage. Now, I rather enjoyed having the second home.
Earlier in the day, I had nearly lost it when I couldn’t find the pocket watch—one of the few things I’d had of my mother’s—engraved with the words Time is a Gift. It appeared to be old, like maybe it had belonged to someone else before my mother.
The previous summer, when my silver bracelet went missing, I thought I must have been careless with it. And then when I couldn’t find the Eiffel Tower Limoges box containing one pearl earring, I figured my memory wasn’t what it used to be. But the third missing item—the pocket watch—caused me to think differently, that either I was losing my mind, or someone wanted me to think I was.
After careful reflection, I refused to believe there was any possibility that I was going insane. My father’s aunt Rosie had been insane. Verifiably insane, from what I’d been told. I wasn’t like Aunt Rosie. Nowhere near. But when I failed to locate the pocket watch, my doubts heightened.
The peculiar thing was that something similar had happened to the main character in my debut novel Break-In at Buttons and Bows, a book I had written nine years earlier. I was a writer of cozy mysteries and had nine books published. In Break-In, my fictional husband brainwashed the wife into thinking she was losing her mind, so he would have just cause to leave her. I started to wonder if Carl was doing the same. Having once been abandoned, I dreaded the thought of going through that again, yet I couldn’t ignore the possibility.
When I first confronted Carl, we were relaxing at home, listening to music.
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, Mags, but I never even read that book,” he admitted.
My name is Margaret, but most people have called me everything but Margaret my whole life—Mags, Maggie, Marge, Madge, Margie. Margaret has more nicknames that any other name I know, and I don’t much like any of them. The only person I can remember calling me Margaret was my father—the parent who didn’t desert me. Carl knew I didn’t like any of the nicknames.
“What are you talking about? You said you’d read all my books.”
“Sorry. They’re just not my thing.”
“Not your thing?”
“Not my kind of read.”
“So, you haven’t read any of them?”
“I tried. I really did, hon. I think I got the farthest in the one about the music teacher.”
“You didn’t finish it?”
“So, you’ve lied to me all this time?”
“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Feeling stung, I left the room. He couldn’t have shown his support by forcing himself to read my books even if they “weren’t his thing”? Going out on our neighbor’s boat every weekend of the summer wasn’t exactly my thing either, but I did it.
I couldn’t get over it—Carl hadn’t read even one of my books all the way through. I wanted him—the most important person in my life—more than anyone else to like my books. I wanted him to be proud of me.
I continued sipping my wine, stewing over his hurtful admission, when Carl entered the room.
“I see you’ve started happy hour without me,” he said.
“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” I said dryly.
“May I join you, or is this a private party?” he asked.
“Sure. I just felt like stretching out on this chair for a while.”
He left and returned with a beer.
I watched him get comfortable in the chair across from me. Without even one wrinkle or gray hair, he appeared younger than his fifty-six years, which I found rather annoying since at forty-eight I had plenty of both.
“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?” he asked.
“For not reading your books.”
I didn’t want to have this discussion right then. I wasn’t prepared for it. Plus, I had a headache. “Kind of,” I said.
“Tell me about the missing butterfly pin.”
“Your first book. It had to do with things stolen from a jewelry store. That’s why you accused me of doing something with your bracelet.”
“It was a boutique, not a jewelry store, and how did you know about the butterfly pin if you never read the book?”
“You probably told me. I don’t know.”
“I wrote that book nine years ago.” I didn’t even remember one of the stolen pieces was a butterfly pin until he’d just mentioned it.
“Maybe it says that on the back cover.” He paused. “Look, let’s not ruin this day with a petty argument.” He laughed and smiled that you-can’t-possibly-stay-mad-at-me smile he did so well. “If we’re going to argue, let’s make it about something worthwhile.”
We didn’t share the same sense of humor. I ignored him.
He stood up. “Like what time we’re going to eat dinner so we can make it to the Richardsons’ dock by seven-thirty.”
We had met Darlene and Lance Richardson on the very day we’d moved into our lake home—not surprising given Darlene’s propensity for making everyone else’s business her own. If it weren’t for Carl, I probably wouldn’t have become such close friends with them. I was more of an over-the-fence “Hi, how are you?” type of neighbor.
“Jesus, Carl, we just got here.”
“Look, if you have a problem with—”
“No problem.” I got up from the chaise lounge and headed toward the bathroom. “I just need to start taking my Dramamine then.”
“Will you tell me about the book when you come back?”
“It’s on the bookshelf. Just read the back cover.”
After I said it, I wished I hadn’t, at least not in that tone. Still, I remained bothered by the missing items, his lack of interest in my work, and the fact that I had to spend the first evening of the summer on the Richardsons’ stupid boat.
The sound of the car engine and garage door closing told me he was probably headed to the liquor store, so we wouldn’t arrive empty-handed.
When we arrived at the Richardsons’ dock, Lance and Darlene were nowhere to be seen, so we boarded their forty-foot cabin cruiser, Little Thaisa (named after a Shakespearean character that Lance liked) and sat on the deck to wait. Lance and Carl shared an affinity for Shakespeare—one of many things they shared that meant nada to me.
Within five minutes, Darlene came bouncing down the steps that led away from their house. She wore an animal-print jacket, black tights, ballet slippers, and dangly earrings—a typical outfit for her—and carried a shopping bag holding what I suspected held twice as much food as the four of us would eat during the evening cruise. Waffles, their three-year-old schnoodle, followed close behind her. Why we always ate dinner before going out on their boat, I didn’t know.
Darlene—upbeat and always perky, with graceful eyes and a full mouth—rarely wore makeup or did anything special with her hair. I had spent an hour getting myself ready, and even though I was taller, slimmer, and five years younger, I didn’t look half as good as she did. Playful, and sometimes overly affectionate, Darlene had spunk—one of those carefree types who was willing to bend the rules if it meant having a good time.
She greeted Carl with a hug. “Jeez, I missed you, handsome! When are you guys going to move up here permanently?” She kissed him on the cheek, clasped her arm around his, and led him to one of the bench seats. “C’mon, Mags. Let’s get this party rollin’,” she called out to me.
“Where’s Lance?” I asked.
“He’s not here?” she said.
Carl got up to check the cabin.
“He’s not in there,” he said when he returned.
“He left the house at least fifteen minutes before me,” Darlene told us. “I was packing up the food and stuff.” She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket to call him. “That’s odd. It went to voice mail.”
“Maybe he went on an errand or something or is talking to another neighbor,” I told her. Seeing the worried look on her face, I turned to Carl. “Maybe you could take a walk down a few houses…see if you can find him.”
Darlene fished a set of keys from her pocket and handed them to Carl. “Sweetheart, be a love and check the garage to see if both cars are in there.”
If any other female non-relative had used such terms of endearment with my husband, I might have gotten upset. But not Darlene. She rarely called men by their first names. It was always love, dear, honey, handsome. I didn’t take her flirtations seriously—they were just part of her nature. She did it in front of Lance and me all the time.
“When is that man going to loosen up and wear something more casual?” Darlene asked me after Carl had left.
“What’s wrong with what he’s wearing?” Carl’s weekend outfits didn’t vary much—sharply creased cotton slacks and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
“He’s so buttoned-up. Does he even own a pair of sweats or a t-shirt?”
“I don’t think so. Gee, I hope Lance is okay.”
Her face scrunched up before the tears came. I guided her to the seat in the aft of the boat and put my arm around her. Waffles jumped up on her lap as if to comfort her as well.
“Don’t think the worst. I’m sure he’s fine.”
“It’s not that,” she blubbered.
“What is it?”
Not lacking when it came to theatrics, Darlene threw her arms up in the air and wailed, “I’m going to be a grandma.”
“So, these are happy tears?”
“Well, yes and no. I’m not old enough to be a grandmother.”
After ten minutes of listening to Darlene talk about her impending grandmotherhood, one would have thought her daughter-in-law was destined to spew royalty from her loins. I cut her some slack since it would be her first, and to keep her mind off her missing husband, I let her drone on about the baby.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked her.
“Would you? A glass of my Jewish champagne would be lovely. There’s some in the fridge.”
Darlene drank Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. Only one store in the area carried it, a Jewish delicatessen in the next town, and even then, Darlene had to call beforehand to make sure they had it in stock before she made the trip. Concocted from celery seeds and I don’t know what else, she claimed it calmed her stomach. Its manufacturers were calling it a “healing tonic” until the FDA told them they couldn’t call it a tonic anymore. I’d tried it once—a bilious drink that tasted like cod liver oil, only peppery. One sip had been enough for me.
Half an hour passed before Carl returned. “Did he show up?” he asked.
We both shook our heads.
“Well, I walked to several houses in each direction and didn’t find him.”
“What about his car?” Darlene asked.
“Both your cars are in the garage.” He handed the keys back to her. “I’m going to grab a beer.”
“Bring Mags a glass of wine while you’re at it, hon.”
“I’m sure he’s okay,” I said to Darlene.
“Of course he is.”
“There will be a very simple explanation for his absence, you’ll see.”
“We’ll probably all laugh at this later,” she said when Carl returned with the drinks. But judging by the looks on their faces, I sensed they didn’t believe that any more than I did.
We sat staring at one another for an unbearable length of time until Darlene got up and headed toward the stairs that led down to the cabin.
“Where are you going?” I asked her.
“To find something to write on, things I want to tell the police.”
Carl and I looked at each other and shrugged. Had it gotten to the point of calling the police? Even Waffles looked surprised—his eyes open wide and ears pointed straight up.
When Darlene returned, she had a pen and notepad in hand along with another bottle of Dr. Brown’s. She fixed her eyes on the blank page.
“When was the last time you saw him?” I asked.
“That’s a good place to start,” she responded. “I saw him leave the house at about seven-fifteen.”
“Look, while you guys put together your list, I’m going to go door-to-door and ask if anyone has seen him. Sound like a plan?” Carl asked.
We nodded and continued with the list.
“What was he wearing?” I asked.
“Navy blue Dockers, dark slip-on deck shoes, no socks. I don’t remember what shirt he had on, but he was wearing his blue and white windbreaker. Prada Milano. I bought it for him when we were in Italy last year.” She appeared confused.
“You know what they’re going to ask me.”
“If we had an argument beforehand, or if there was any trouble in our marriage, or if I—”
“You’ve been watching way too many CSI shows, Darlene. They’re not going to ask you that.” But after I said it, I thought she was probably right. They always looked at the missing person’s closest relationships first. “So, did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you two have an argument?”
She didn’t respond.
“Sorry…none of my business.”
“This isn’t much of a list,” she said. “I don’t know whether to call or not.”
“Why don’t we wait until Carl gets back. Maybe he’s found out something.”
“Good idea. C’mon downstairs. I’ll fix us something to eat.”
I followed her to the cabin. “Don’t fix anything for me. I’m not at all hungry.”
“You won’t eat with me?” she asked, a woeful expression on her face.
“Well, maybe I could eat a little something.”
We settled into the buttery leather reclining chairs that surrounded the large TV screen hanging on the wall. Despite my objection, Darlene filled my glass with more wine and then grabbed her half-empty bottle of celery seed juice for herself.
“Have you heard anything more from Portia?” she asked.
Portia, our twenty-year-old daughter, had dropped out of Ohio State seven months prior in her junior year, without our knowledge until we received a letter from her saying that she’d been living with her boyfriend on a spiritual commune in Costa Rica—a place to rejuvenate their bodies, connect with nature, and find a higher part of themselves.
“Not since she called me on my birthday in March.”
“So, no word in over two months? Do you think she’s—”
Carl scurried down the steps into the cabin before Darlene could finish the sentence.
“Nothing,” he said. “I knocked on everyone’s door all the way down to Shaw’s to the north and as far as the woods in the other direction. No one has seen him.”
Darlene picked up her cell phone and dialed 9-1-1.