Chapter 18

L HEY LEFT THE HOSPITAL IN HER MAZDA RX~7, HIS FIRST ride in a sports car. The seats were leather but the floor was dirty. The car was not new, but it was cool, with a stick shift that she worked like a veteran race car driver. She said she liked to drive fast, which was fine with Mark. They darted through traffic as they left downtown and headed east. It was almost dark. The radio was on but barely audible, some FM station specializing in easy listening.

Ricky was awake when they left. He was staring at cartoons but saying little. A sad little tray of hospital food sat on the table, untouched by either Ricky or Dianne. Mark had not seen his mother eat three bites in two days. He felt sorry for her sitting there on the bed, staring at Ricky, worrying herself to death. The news from Reggie about the job and the raise had made her smile. Then it made her cry.

Mark was sick of the crying and the cold peas and the dark, cramped room, and he felt guilty for leaving but was delighted to be here in this sports car headed, he hoped, for a plate of hot, heavy food •with warm bread. Clint had mentioned inside-out ravioli and spinach lasagna, and for some reason visions of these rich, meaty dishes had stuck in his mind. Maybe there would be a cake and some cookies. But if Momma Love served green Jell-O, he might throw it at her.

He thought of these things as Reggie thought of being tailed. Her eyes went from the traffic to the mirror, and back again. She drove much too fast, zipping between cars and changing lanes, which didn't bother Mark one bit.

"You think Mom and Ricky are safe?" he asked, watching the cars in front.

"Yes. Don't worry about them. The hospital promised to keep guards at the door." She had talked to George Ord, her new pal, and explained her concern about the safety of the Sway family. She did not mention any specific threats, though Ord had asked. The family was getting unwanted attention, she had explained. Lots of rumors and gossip, most of it generated by a frustrated media. Ord had talked to McThune, then called her back and said the FBI would stay close to the room, but out of sight. She thanked him.

Ord and McThune were amused by it. The FBI already had people in the hospital. Now they had been invited.

She suddenly turned to the right at an intersection, and the tires squealed. Mark chuckled, and she laughed as though it was all fun but her stomach was flipping. They were on a smaller street with old homes and large oaks.

"This is my neighborhood," she said. It was certainly nicer than his. They turned again, to another narrower street where the houses were smaller but still two and three stories tall with deep lawns and manicured hedgerows.

"Why do you take your clients home?" he asked.

"I don't know. Most of my clients are children who come from awful homes. I feel sorry for them, I guess. I get attached to them." "Do you feel sorry for me?" "A litde. But you're lucky, Mark, very lucky. You have a mother who's a good woman and who loves you very much." "Yeah, I guess so. What time is it?" "Almost six. Why?" Mark thought a second and counted the hours. "Forty-nine hours ago Jerome Clifford shot himself. I wish we'd simply run away when we saw his car." "Why didn't you?" "I don't know. It was like I just had to do something once I realized what was going on. I couldn't run away. He was about to die, and I just couldn't ignore it. Something kept pulling me to his car. Ricky was crying and begging me to stop, but I just couldn't. This is all my fault." "Maybe, but you can't change it, Mark. It's done." She glanced at her mirror and saw nothing.

"Do you think we're gonna be okay? I mean, Ricky and me and Mom? When this is all over, will things be like they were?" She slowed and turned into a narrow driveway lined with thick, untrimmed hedges. "Ricky will be fine. It might take time, but he'll be all right. Kids are tough, Mark. I see it every day." "What about me?" "Everything will work out, Mark. Just trust me." The Mazda stopped beside a large two-story house with a porch around the front ot it. snruos aim HUWCLS grew to the windows. Ivy covered one end of the porch.

"Is this your house?" he asked, almost in awe.

"My parents bought it fifty-three years ago, the year before I was born. This is where I grew up. My daddy died when I was fifteen, but Momma Love, bless her heart, is still here." "You call her Momma Love?" "Everyone calls her Momma Love. She's almost eighty, and in better shape than me." She pointed to a garage straight ahead, behind the house. "You see those three windows above the garage? That's where I live." Like the house, the garage needed a good coat of paint on the trim. Both were old and handsome, but there were weeds in the flower beds and grass growing in the cracks of the driveway.

They entered through a side door, and the aroma from the kitchen hit Mark hard. He was suddenly starving. A small woman with gray hair in a tight ponytail and dark eyes met them and hugged Reggie.

"Momma Love, meet Mark Sway," Reggie said, waving at him. He and Momma Love were exactly the same height, and she gently hugged him and pecked him on the cheek. He stood stiff, uncertain how to greet a strange eighty-year-old woman.

"Nice to meet you, Mark," she said in his face. Her voice was strong and sounded much like Reggie's. She took his arm and led him to the kitchen table. "Have a seat right here, and I'll get you something to drink." Reggie grinned at him as if to say "Just do as she says because you have no choice." She hung her umbrella on a rack behind the door and laid her briefcase on the floor.

The kitchen was small and cluttered with cabinets and shelves along three walls. Steam rose from the gas stove. A wooden table with four chairs sat squarely in the center of the room with pots and pans hanging from a beam above it. The kitchen was warm and created instant hunger.

Mark took the nearest chair and watched Momma Love scoot around, grabbing a glass from the cabinet, opening the refrigerator, filling the glass with ice, pouring tea from a pitcher.

Reggie kicked off her shoes and •was stirring something in a pot on the stove. She and Momma Love chatted back and forth, the usual routine of how the day went and who'd called. A cat stopped at Mark's chair and examined him.

"That's Axle," Momma Love said as she served the ice tea -with a cloth napkin. "She's seventeen years old, and very gentle." Mark drank the tea and left Axle alone. He was not fond of cats.

"How's your little brother?" Momma Love asked.

"He's doing much better," he said, and suddenly wondered how much Reggie had told her mother. Then he relaxed. If Clint knew very little, Momma Love probably knew even less. He took another sip. She -waited for a longer answer. "He started talking today." "That's wonderful!" she exclaimed with a huge smile, and patted him on the shoulder.

Reggie poured her tea from a different pitcher, and doctored it with sweetener and lemon. She sat across from Mark at the table, and Axle jumped into her lap. She sipped tea, rubbed trie cat, ana oegau slowly removing her jewelry. She was tired.

"Are you hungry?" Momma Love asked, suddenly darting around the kitchen, opening the oven, stirring the pot, closing a drawer.

"Yes ma'am." "It's so nice to hear a young man with manners," she said as she stopped for a second and smiled at him. "Most of Reggie's kids have no manners. I haven't heard a 'yes ma'am' in this house in years." Then she was off again, wiping out a pan and placing it in the sink.

Reggie winked at him. "Mark's been eating hospital food for three days, Momma Love, so he wants to know what you're cooking." "It's a surprise," she said, opening the oven and releasing a thick aroma of meat and cheese and tomatoes. "But I think you'll like it, Mark." He was certain he would like it. Reggie winked at him again as she twisted her head and removed a set of small diamond earrings. The pile of jewelry in front of her now included half a dozen bracelets, two -rings, a necklace, a watch, and the earrings. Axle was watching it too. Momma Love was suddenly hacking away with a large knife on a cutting board. She whirled around and laid a basket of bread, hot and buttery, in front of him. "I bake bread every Wednesday," she said, patting his shoulder again, then off to the stove.

Mark grabbed the biggest slice and took a bite. It was soft and warm, unlike any bread he'd eaten. The butter and garlic melted instantly on his tongue.

"Momma Love is full-blooded Italian," Reggie said, stroking Axle. "Both her parents were born in Italy and immigrated to this country in 1902. I'm half Italian." "Who was Mr. Love?" Mark asked, chomping away, butter on his lips and fingers.

"A Memphis boy. They were married when she was sixteen-" "Seventeen," Momma Love corrected her without turning around.

Momma Love was now setting the table with plates and flatware. Reggie and her jewelry were in the •way, so she gathered it all up and kicked and nudged Axle to the floor. "When do we eat, Momma Love?" she asked.

"In a minute." "I'm going to run and change clothes," she said. Axle sat on Mark's foot and rubbed the back of her head on his shin.

"I'm very sorry about your little brother," Momma Love said, glancing at the door to make sure Reggie was indeed gone.

Mark swallowed a mouthful of bread and wiped his mouth with the napkin. "He'll be okay. We've got good doctors." "And you've got the best lawyer in the world," she said sternly with no smile. She waited for verification.

"We sure do," Mark said slowly.

She nodded her approval and started for the sink. "What on earth did you boys see out there?" Mark sipped his tea and stared at the gray ponytail. This could be a long night with plenty of questions. It would be best to stop it now. "Reggie told me not to talk about it." He bit into another piece of bread.

"Oh, Reggie always says that. 5ut you can taiK to me. All her kids do." In the last forty-nine hours, he'd learned much about interrogation. Keep the other guy on his heels. When the questions get old, dish out a few of your own. "How often does she bring a kid home?" She slid the pot off the burner, and thought a second. "Maybe twice a month. She wants them to eat good food, so she brings them to Momma Love's. Sometimes they spend the night. One little girl stayed a month. She was so pitiful. Name was Andrea. The court took her away from her parents because they were Satan worshipers, doing animal sacrifices and all that mess. She was so sad. She lived upstairs here in Reggie's old bedroom, and she cried when she had to leave. Broke my heart too. I told Reggie 'No more kids' after that. But Reggie does what Reggie wants. She really likes you, you know." "What happened to Andrea?" "Her parents got her back. I pray for her every day. Do you go to church?" "Sometimes." "Are you a good Catholic?" "No. It's a little, well, I'm not sure what kind of church it is. But it's not Catholic. Baptist, I think. We go every now and then." Momma Love listened to this with deep concern, terribly puzzled by the fact that he wasn't sure what kind of church he attended.

"Maybe I should take you to my church. St. Luke's. It's a beautiful church. Catholics know how to build beautiful churches, you know." He nodded but could think of nothing to say. In a flash, she'd forgotten about churches and was back to the stove, opening the oven door and studying the dish with the concentration of Dr. Greenway. She mumbled to herself and it was obvious she was pleased.

"Go wash your hands, Mark, right down the hall there. Bads nowadays don't wash their hands enough. Go along." Mark crammed the last bite of bread into his mouth and followed Axle to the bathroom.

When he returned, Reggie was seated at the table, flipping through a stack of mail. The bread basket had been replenished. Momma Love opened the oven and pulled out a deep dish covered with aluminum foil. "It's lasagna," Reggie said to him with a trace of anticipation.

Momma Love launched into a brief history of the dish while she cut it into sections and dug out great hunks with a large spoon. Steam boiled from the pan. "The recipe has been in my family for centuries," she said, staring at Mark as if he cared about the lasagna's pedigree. He wanted it on his plate. "Came over from the old country. I could bake it for my daddy when I was ten years old." Reggie rolled her eyes a bit and winked at Mark. "It has four layers, each with a different cheese." She covered their plates with perfect squares of it. The four different cheeses ran together and oozed from the thick pasta.

The phone on the countertop rang, and Reggie answered. "Go on and eat, Mark, if you want," Momma Love said as she majestically set his plate in front of him. She nodded at Reggie's back. "She might talk forever." Reggie was listening and talking softly into the phone. It was obvious they were not supposed to hear.

Mark cut a huge bite with his fork, blew on it just enough to knock off the steam, and carefully raised it to nis mourn, ne ciicwcu siuwiy, savumi^ me n^u mw[n. sauce, the cheeses, and who knew what else. Even the spinach was divine.

Momma Love watched and waited. She'd poured herself a second glass of wine, and held it halfway between the table and her lips as she waited for a response to her great-grandmother's secret recipe.

"It's great," he said, going for the second bite. "Just great." His only experience with lasagna had been a year or so earlier when his mother had pulled a plastic tray from the microwave and served it for dinner. Swanson's frozen, or something like that. He remembered a rubbery taste, nothing like this.

"You like it," Momma Love said, taking a sip of her wine, He nodded with a mouthful, and this pleased her. She took a small bite.

Reggie hung up and turned to the table. "Gotta run downtown. The cops just picked up Ross Scott for shoplifting again. He's in jail crying for his mother, but they can't find her." "How long will you be gone?" Mark asked, his fork still.

"Couple of hours. You finish eating and visit with Momma Love. I'll take you to the hospital later." She patted his shoulder, and then she was out the door.

Momma Love was silent until she heard Reggie's car start, then she said, "What on earth did you boys see out there?" Mark took a bite, chewed forever as she waited, then took a long drink of tea. "Nothing. How do you make this stuff? It's great." "Well, it's an old recipe." She sipped the wine, and rattled on tor ten minutes about the sauce. Then the cheeses. Mark didn't hear a word.

HE FINISHED THE PEACH COBBLER AND ICE CREAM WHILE she cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. He thanked her again, said it was delicious for the tenth time, and stood with an aching stomach. He'd been sitting for an hour. Dinner at the trailer was usually a ten-minute affair. Most of the time they ate microwave meals on trays in front of the television. Dianne was too tired to cook.

Momma Love admired his empty bowl, and sent him to the den while she finished cleaning. The TV was color, but without remote control. No cable. A large family portrait hung above the sofa. He noticed it, then walked closer. It was an old photograph of the Love family, matted and framed by thick, curly wood. Mr. and Mrs. Love were on a small sofa in some studio with two boys in tight collars standing beside them. Momma Love had dark hair and a beautiful smile. Mr. Love was a foot taller, and sat rigid and unsmiling. The boys were stiff and awkward, obviously not happy to be dressed in ties and starched shirts. Reggie was between her parents, in the center of the portrait. She had a wonderful smirky smile, and it was obvious she was the center of the family's attention and enjoyed this immensely. She was ten or eleven, about Mark's age, and the face of this pretty little girl caught his attention and took his breath. He stared at her face and she seemed to laugh at him. She was full of mischief.

"Beautiful children, huh?" It was Momma Love, easing beside him and admiring her family. -"When was this?" Mark asked, still staring.

"Forty years ago," she said slowly, almost sadly. "We were all so young and happy then." She stood next to him, their arms touching, shoulder to shoulder.

"Where are the boys?" "Joey, on the right there, is the oldest. He was a test pilot for the Air Force, and was killed in 1964 in a plane crash. He's a hero." "I'm very sorry," Mark whispered.

"Bennie, on the left, is a year younger than Joey. He's a marine biologist in Vancouver. He never comes to see his mother. He was here about two years ago for Christmas, then off again. He's never married, but I think he's okay. No grandkids by him either. Reggie's got the only grandkids." She was reaching for a framed five by seven next to a lamp on an end table. She handed it to Mark. Two graduation photos with blue caps and gowns. The girl was pretty. The boy had mangy hair, a teenager's beard, and a look of sheer hatred in his eyes.

"These are Reggie's kids," Momma Love explained without the slightest trace of either love or pride. "The boy was in prison last time we heard anything. Selling dope. He was a good boy when he was little, but then his father got him and just ruined him. This was after the divorce. The girl is out in California trying to be an actress or singer or something, or so she says, but she's had drug problems too and we don't hear much. She was a sweet child too. I haven't seen her in almost ten years. Can you believe it? My only granddaughter. It's so sad." Momma Love was now sipping her third glass of wine, and the tongue was loose. If she could talk about her family long enough, then maybe she'd get around to his. And once they'd covered the families, perhaps they might discuss exactly what on earth the boys saw out there.

"Why haven't you seen her in ten years?" Mark asked, but only because he needed to say something. It was really a dumb question because he knew the answer might take hours. His stomach ached from the feast and he wanted to simply lie on the couch and be left alone.

"Regina, I mean Reggie, lost her when she was about thirteen. They were going through this nightmare of a divorce, he was chasing other women and had girlfriends all over town, they even caught him with a cute little nurse at the hospital, but the divorce was a horrible nightmare and Reggie got to where she couldn't handle it. Joe, her ex-husband, was a good boy when they got married, but then made a bunch of money and got the doctor's attitude, you know, and he changed. Money went to his head." She paused and took a sip. "Awful, just awful. I do miss them, though. They're my only grandbabies." They didn't look like grandbabies, especially the boy. He was nothing but a punk.

"What happened to him?" Mark asked after a few seconds of silence.

"Well." She sighed as if she hated to tell, but would do it anyway. "He was sixteen when his father got him, wild and rotten already, I mean, his father was an ob-gyn and never had time for the kids and a boy needs a father, don't you think; and the boy, Jeff is his name, and he was out of control early. Then his father, who had all the money and all the lawyers, got Regina sent away and took the kids, and when this happened Jeff was pretty much on his own. With his father's money, of course. He finished high school almost at gunpoint, and within six months got caught with a bunch of drugs." She stopped suddenly, and Mark thought she was about to cry. She took a sip. "The last time I hugged him was when he graduated from high school. I saw his picture in the newspaper when he got in trouble, but he never called or anything. It's been ten years, Mark. I know I'll die without ever seeing them again." She quickly rubbed her eyes, and Mark looked for a hole to crawl in.

She took his arm. "Come with me. Let's go sit on the porch." He followed through a narrow foyer, through the front door, and they sat in the swing on the front porch. It was dark and die air was cool. They rocked gently in silence. Momma Love sipped the wine.

She decided to continue the saga. "You see, Mark, once Joe got the kids, he just ruined them. Gave them plenty of money. Kept his old sleazy girlfriends around the house. Flaunted it in front of the kids. Bought them cars. Amanda got pregnant in high school, and he arranged the abortion." "Why'd Reggie change her name?" he asked politely. Maybe when she answered, this saga •would be finished.

"She spent several years in and out of institutions. This was after the divorce, and bless her heart, she was in bad shape, Mark. I cried myself to sleep every night worrying about my daughter. She lived with me most of the time. It took years, but she finally came through. Lots of therapy. Lots of money. Lots of love. And then she decided one day that the nightmare was over, that she would pick up the pieces and move on, and that she would create a new life. That's why she changed her name. She went to court and had it done legally. She fixed up the apartment over the garage. She gave me all these pictures, because she refuses to look at them. She went to law school. She became a new person with a new identity and a new name." "Is she bitter?" "She fights it. She lost her children, and no mother can ever recover from that. But she tries not to think about them. They were brainwashed by their father, so they have no use for her. She hates him, of course, and I think it's probably healthy." "She's a very good lawyer," he said as if he'd personally hired and fired many.

Momma Love moved closer, too close to suit Mark. She patted his knee and this irritated the hell out of him, but she was a sweet old woman and meant nothing by it. She'd buried a son and lost her only grandson, so he gave her a break. There was no moon. A soft wind gently rustled the leaves of the huge black oaks between the porch and the street. He was not eager to return to the hospital, and so he decided this was pleasant after all. He smiled at Momma Love, but she was staring blankly into the darkness, lost in some deep thought. A heavy, folded quilt padded the swing.

He assumed she would work her way back to the shooting of Jerome Clifford, and this he wanted to avoid. "Why does Reggie have so many kids for clients?" She kept patting his knee. "Because some kids need lawyers, though most of them don't know it. And most lawyers are too busy making money to worry about kids. She wants to help. She'll always blame herself for losing her kids, and she just wants to help others. She's very protective of her little clients." "I didn't pay her very much money." "Don't worry, Mark. Every month, Reggie takes at least two cases for free. They're called pro bono, which means the lawyer does the work without a fee. If she didn't want your case, she wouldn't have taken it." He knew about pro bono. Half the lawyers on television were laboring away on cases they wouldn't get paid for. The other half were sleeping with beautiful women and eating in fancy restaurants.

"Reggie has a soul, Mark, a conscience," she continued, still patting gently. The wineglass was empty, but the words were clear and the mind was sharp. "She'll work for no fee if she believes in the client. And some of her poor clients will break your heart, Mark. I cry all the time over some of these little fellas." "You're very proud of her, aren't you?" "I am. Reggie almost died, Mark, a few years ago when the divorce was going on. I almost lost her. Then I almost went broke trying to get her back on her feet. But look at her now." "Will she ever get married again?" "Maybe. She's dated a couple of men, but nothing serious. Romance is not at the top of her list. Her work comes first. Like tonight. It's almost eight o'clock, and she's at the city jail talking to a little troublemaker they picked up for shoplifting. Wonder what'll be in the newspaper in the morning." Sports, obituaries, the usual. Mark shifted uncomfortably and waited. It was obvious he was supposed to speak. "Who knows." "What was it like having your picture on the front page of the paper?" "I didn't like it." "Where'd they get those pictures?" "They're school pictures." There was a long pause. The chains above them, squeaked as the swing moved slowly back and forth. "What was it like walking up on that dead man who'd just shot himself?" "Pretty scary, but to be honest, my doctor told me not to discuss it because it stresses me out. Look at my little brother, you know. So, I'd better not say anything." She patted harder. "Of course. Of course." Mark pressed with his toes, and the swing moved a bit faster. His stomach was still packed and he was suddenly sleepy. Momma Love was humming now. The breeze picked up, and he shivered.

REGGIE FOUND THEM ON THE DARK PORCH, IN THE SWING, ro'cking quietly back and forth. Momma Love sipped black coffee and patted him on the shoulder. Mark was curled in a knot beside her, his head resting in her lap, a quilt over his legs.

"How long has he been asleep?" she whispered.

"An hour or so. He got cold, then he got sleepy. He's a sweet child." "He sure is. I'll call his mother at the hospital, and see if he can stay here tonight." "He ate until he was stuffed. I'll fix him a good breakfast in the morning."