Bathroom Truths

I turn on an overhead light as I enter the upstairs hallway. Three doors, two open, one closed. Bathroom to my right, bedroom ahead. To my left, the closed door; I turn the handle, push it open — three tall columns of large cardboard cartons, all unopened; two filing cabinets, no other furniture. There’s probably a wealth of information I could find here, but it would take time and I’d leave too evidence of my presence, so I close the door and walk into the bathroom.

There is a bathtub with a shower head but no curtain, and the shelves above the sink are empty. Looks like a guest bathroom, and based on the evidence here and in the closed room I’d just left, this home does not have many overnight visitors. With literally nothing to see here, I head into the bedroom.

I feel regret sink into my belly as I enter this last room. If Darci was searching for her car keys, I’d feel a bit uncomfortable allowing her to search through my apartment’s bedroom; I can only imagine how violated Murph would feel if he knew that I, a person from work he hardly knew, was investigating the place of his most initimate moments. But I’ve come too far to turn back now, and I flip on another light. Like the kitchen and living room, the bedroom is immaculate, bedsheets dressing the king mattress like a finely tailored suit, the side tables and dresses spotless, not a single article of clothing out of place. Clothes — to my right, on the wall across the bed, is a plastic hamper, waist high. I race over, lift the cover; the hamper is half full, and I begin sifting through the contents. Boxer shorts, crew socks, t-shirts … and panties, bras, nylons. Either Murph’s a cross-dresser, or a female most definitely lives here.

After closing the hamper, I almost leave the bedroom, confident that the evidence I’ve gathered so far has proven Steph’s existence. But I decide to peek into the room that held my greatest interest, the master bathroom. If you want to find the truth about someone, you have to search through their medicine cabinet and toiletries. I find the medicine cabinet on a wall to the side of the double-bowl vanity; in it are a few prescription bottles — statin, antibiotic, suppository — all in Murph’s name. Deodarant, shaving cream, razors … and tampons, vaginal cream, several other products for feminine hygenie. I close the cabinet, walk to the shower stall, open the door; there are two corner shelves, each with a different set of hair products.

“I’m done here,” my words spoken to nobody as I close the shower door. I’m halfway through the bedroom, on my way out of the house — and a detail from what I’ve just seen in the bathroom leaps to my mind. I turn, race back to the double-bowl vanity, and confirm that detail.

Each bowl had a toothbrush holder on the right side, and toothbrush lying to the left of the bowl, along with a tube of toothpaste. The arrangement of both bowls is identical, except — the tube on the right bowl is rolled up, while the tube on the left is full.

I race over to the shower stall, open the door, and check the bottles of hair products. One shelf’s bottles are partially emptied, but the other shelf’s are all filled.

Medicine cabinet — I don’t even bother closing the shower stall door. I examine each of the feminine products; none of them have been opened.

“Dammit.” I’m no longer curious, but rather suspicious, and more than a little enraged. I’m now convinced that Murph has created an elaborate ruse, has been fooling me all along with his story about his fake wife —

I hear a telephone ringing, from the living room downstairs.

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First Sighting

The sharp rhythmic beeping stops, and a solitary tone an octave higher sounds; a red light on the device turns off, a green light illuminates. I exhale, then turn my attention to the kitchen.

There’s a panel of switches next to the garage service door, and I flip all of them up, flooding the kitchen with light. The kitchen looks like a museum, the marbled counter tops and island clean and clear, no dirty dishes or garbage in sight. Light reflects brightly off the appliances and floors, no fingerprints or smudges in sight; it seems abnormally clean, like the room has never actually been visited by humans. I have to test this hypothesis, so I walk over to the refrigerator, open the door. Milk and orange juice, both partially empty; canned beverages, bottles of dressings and condiments, cold cuts, leftovers in plastic containers. Well, there’s my proof of human habitation.

A wide doorway leads to a carpeted living room, as immaculate as the kitchen. The room is furnished with a large leather sofa, a recliner on either side. On the strategically arranged tables are vases of plastic flowers and small framed pictures; I don’t recognize any of the pictured faces. I scan the walls, adorned with posters of European art, nothing I haven’t —

On the wall behind me, I find a large photograph. A couple, bride and groom, embracing each other in front of a gazebo, a lake in the background. The man is unmistakably Murph.

I walk up to the photograph, studying the woman. She looks in her early thirties, as does Murph. Curly brown hair, face narrow and lean. Short. It’s the first time I’ve seen an image of Stephanie, and she’s stunning, just like I’d expect from a happy bride.

Or a very good actress. I turn, head up the carpeted stairs leading to the second floor.

Entry

Saturday has mercifully arrived. Before leaving my apartment to catch the train up to the ‘burbs, I call Murph’s home number. Three rings, then his distinctive baritone — Hello. We can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message. The automated reply of a man who routinely screens calls; I hang up the phone, chiding myself for wasting time.

All manner of alibis come to me as the train crawls out of the city. He left a report at home, and I need to review it over the weekend. I heard he was going out of town, and wasn’t sure he’d arranged for a house sitter. (Angelina had told me yesterday she would be at the outlet mall today; it’s an hour away, and I’ve been on enough shopping trips with her to know she’d be gone most of the day.) A few others as well, all plausible enough to keep me out of trouble with the neighbors or police. Of course once Murph got back along with Steph, if there was a Steph, I’d have some explaining to do, but I’ve come down this road too far to turn away.

It’s late afternoon when the train arrives, and the sun’s all but disappeared into the late fall horizon. Murph’s home is about a mile away from the station. I see bus route signs, and there’s even a couple of taxis waiting. One of the drivers calls to me, asks if I’m sure I want to walk the streets alone in the dark. He’s patronizing but sincere, so I thank him and promise to be careful.

In the twenty minutes of walking it takes to reach my destination, I don’t meet anyone on the sidewalks. I pause a couple times for cars pulling into driveways, and every once in a while I pass a good citizen sweeping leaves out the garage. It occurs to me that I probably do look suspicious, the sole pedestrian in this sedentary community. Maybe somebody will call the cops; if they do, I’ll just pretend to be calling on Murph. And his wife, of course. I’ll act surprised when I find he’s not home.

One last left, and I’m on Murph’s street. Three houses down, on the right, a two-story structure that looks just like every other house in the subdivision, lined and spaced evenly like cookies on a baking sheet. I approach the garage, locate the key pad on the right, and as I flip it open I realize my ethical transgression is about to become a legal mattter. Lifting the combination from Angelina’s pad could be dismissed as silly and impetuous, but using that knowledge to enter someone’s private residence, without their knowledge and certainly not their consent …

I press the four buttons in sequence, and the up/down arrow at the bottom of the pad stares back at me. I can almost see it smile, hear its taunt — you’re not gonna chicken out now, are you?

No way. I punch the button with my thumb, smile with satisfaction as the garage door lifts.

The two-car garage is empty, and the half to my left is occupied with lawn equipment; I see oil spots in the expected location on the right. Seriously, how many people in this ‘burb have only one car? I check the driveway behind me, and yes, there are oil spots on the side in front of the lawn equipment. Their other car, the one that’s left outside the garage, could be in the shop.

I’m not going to find any definitive answers here, so I walk into the driveway, enter the house through the service door. The kitchen’s dark; in the distance, I can see a light from what must be the living room, probably on a timer.

And I hear a noise. A steady beeping, coming from a hallway to the right. I walk over, see a large flat electronic device — I don’t recognize the model, but it’s function is unmistakable. A house alarm, detecting an entry, and waiting to be disarmed. And primed to notify the police, should the disarm sequence not be entered on time.

I don’t have much time, probably no more than a minute. I flip on a nearby ceiling light, scan the device. It’s fairly intiuitve, all I need is the disarming sequence. Shit, Angelina only wrote down one set of numbers, and I didn’t hear her say anything to Murph about the house alarm. Maybe he called her later — hey there’s an alarm as well, you’ll need to know that number too. Or, he’d planned to disable the alarm, but forgot — sorry, I forgot to tell Steph not to set it.

Shaking my head, I realize I have only one play. Walking away’s not an option, because the arm will certainly report an aborted break-in, and should the cops find me my actions will seem highly suspicious. And there’s no time to figure out what combination Murph could have programmed, other than the same sequence used for the garage door. A fairly reasonable assumption, and it’s all I’ve got with no time to spare. I punch in the combination, reach over to the right of the keypad, press Off — and hold my breath.

Travel Plans

Three weeks later, and I’m having my weekly chess game with Murph. The numbers that will open his garage door, his home, and whatever secrets he’s been hiding, have lain scribbled on a sticky note in my apartment, like a miniature treasure map. Next week is Thanksgiving, the time he’d arranged for Angelina to house-sit for him. I need to confirm that plan is still in play.

I take a pawn of his with a knight. “We playing next week?”

Murph picks up a bishop, placing it in line to threaten the knight. “No, I’m out. Visiting Steph’s family in Colorado for the week.”

I move the knight out of harm’s way. “Cool. Leaving what, Sunday?”

My fingers have barely lifted from the knight, when he sends his bishop down the board, taking my knight’s pawn. Dammit, I forgot to look at the board again — I moved the bishop but not the knight on this side, so now he’s got my rook pinned. Only way I can come back from this is for Murph to make a mistake, which he almost never does.

I notice the silence between us, then look up at him, face as placid as ever; he’s been waiting for my attention. “Saturday. Our flight is Saturday, early morning. And we return the following Saturday evening.”

All I can do is blink, as I wonder why he’s providing me this information. Does he somehow suspect … no that’s crazy, he didn’t even know I was in the conference room with Angelina when he gave her the garage code. So why — 

“Your move.” Murph then glances down at my doomed rook.

A Door to Numbers

Angelina would need a few minutes to get to her desk and back, and her footfalls are heavy enough for me to know when she was coming. And what I need to do only takes a few seconds — flip over the legal pad, commit the numbers she’s written down to memory, then turn the pad back over. Those numbers would give me access to Murph’s home, and when there I could find a definitive answer to the questions my mind refuses to ignore. Is Murph really married? If yes, then why is his wife rarely if ever seen in public? If no, what could posses a man to create such an elaborate ruse?

If I flip over the legal pad, I can unlock a door that will open a house full of answers. But that act would open a second door, figurative but no less real. I would betray the trust that Angelina has placed in me, and violate the privacy that Murph so clearly cherishes. And after committing such a blatantly unethical act, would I be able to resist —

A bald man wearing a very colorful tie walks into the conference room. He looks at me, purses his lips. “Info Quest?”

I shake my head, point to the man’s left. “Think they’re in B.”

“Ah!” The man winks at me. “Thanks.”

He leaves, and the regret I felt when he entered leaves me, and lets me know there’s only one course of action for me. I flip over the legal pad, stare at the numbers. Five, none sequential. As a child, I learned the best way to memorize a series of numbers was to impose a pattern on them, based on numbers familiar to me (a famous athlete’s uniform number, a significant month or year, a scientific fact or formula); I quickly impose a pattern, then hear Angelina’s distinctive footfalls, and place the pad back into its position. Angelina walks into the conference room a moment later, and I almost want to apologize to her.

Two Phones and a Legal Pad

It’s the following afternoon, and I’m sitting alone in a conference room. On the table to the left of me is a legal pad, turned over by a trusting co-worker. There are no windows, and the recording devices in the room are turned off — but I feel the whole world is watching me, anticipating my next move.

It had been a busy morning, and I haven’t seen or even thought about Murph all day. There’s a standing meeting I attend every Thursday at 2 in the conference room where I’m currently sitting; many people dial in to the conference call from their desks, so on any given week we can have as many as a dozen people in the room, or I can be by myself. When I walked into the room a few minutes before 2, I saw Angelina would be keeping me company today.

Angelina greeted me with a nod, and as she began dialing the conference number into the speakerphone, paused a moment to look up at me. “Heard you played basketball with the boys last night?”

I let out a groan that dissolves into a laugh. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.” My mind scanned through memories of the night before, then stopped upon a particular moment. “Murph’s got a pretty amazing shot.”

“Oh!” Angelina nearly jumped out of her chair, like her leg has just brushed against an upturned pin. She glanced up at the wall clock — 1:58 — then cancelled the conference call. “I need to call him, about that housesitting he wants me to do for him.” She got up and walked over to a side table, then picked up the receiver of a desk phone.

She dialed the four-digit extension; I heard Murhp’s muted voice from the receiver. “Hey, you still want me to come to your house when you’re gone?” Yeah. “All right, when can I get a key from you?” I couldn’t make out Murph’s response, but I saw Angelina walk back to where she’d been sitting, grabbed the legal pad she had brung; I casually noticed the pad was blank. She laid the pad on the side table, picked up a nearby pen — “That’ll work, what’s the garage code?”

An idea had begun forming in my mind, but I dismissed it as rash, and disrespectful to both Angelina and Murph. She wrote quickly on the pad, nodded — “Got it. Thanks.” And then hung up the receiver.

I’d all but forgotten my idea by the time Angelina sat down. But then, another pin-prick jump. “Don’t we want to go over the contract today?” I nodded, and Angelina responded by turning over the legal pad as she stood abruptly — “I have a markup from legal, on my desk. The call never starts on time, I should go get it.”

And then, she left. Leaving me alone in the room, with her overturned legal pad. And a thought that cannot be easily dismissed this time.

Distraction

[In addition to today’s post, I’ve updated several of the earlier entries in this story — The Smoking Insomniac, Unsolicited Advice, and Opening Shot. I won’t say what changes I made or why I made them, because that information would spoil a surprise I have planned.]

Darci’s back from her class when I finally arrive at my apartment. She gets up from the sofa to kiss me, then steps back, and tells me I look like shit. I laugh, and she follows me into the bedroom.

“Have a good time?” She lies on the bed, as I begin taking off my sweats.

I shake my head. “Forgot how much I hate basketball.”

“Well, I did try to remind you.” Darci sits up, wraps her arms around her raised knees. “But I got the feeling you were there for some other reason, than shooting hoops.”

I lift the t-shirt off my body, then toss it into a corner. “It’s this guy from work, Murph. Play chess with him every week, he’s a good guy. It’s just — I don’t know how to describe him, he’s just odd.” Pull my shorts down to the floor, step outside the leg holes. “Wanted to see what he’s like outside the office.” Feel like I can’t tell her the full story — he says he’s married but I can’t find any proof, and I was hoping he’d say or do something to clarify his marital status — but even I have trouble believing my own obsession.

“So — ” Darci releases the hold on her knees, and leans back to place her palms behind her on the mattress — “you discover anything interesting?”

Did I ever, I want to say. I heard Murph’s almost paranoid concern with public persona, a determination to control what people thought about him. It sounded like he got married, or created an elaborate story about being married, to craft a socially acceptable narrative about his private life. It was bizzare — People assume they know all they need to know about you — who the hell thinks like that? His weird soliloquy, I know realized, was a distraction, and didn’t get me any closer to the truth I had been seeking. Whether there was a Steph, and if she and Murph were betrothed …

“You OK?” I shake my head at Darci’s question, then tell her I’m fine as I quickly take off my underwear. Naked, I begin rummaging through my dresser for fresh clothes, when I feel her tap on my shoulder.

I turn to see Darci unbuttoning her shirt, a coy smile growing on her face. “Still got some energy, hot shot?” And for the rest of the evening, we enjoy each other’s nakedness.

Straight Shooting

Murph swoops in and picks up my airball on the first bounce, then extends his leaping body and flips the ball up and behind him, his perfectly executed reverse layup kissing the acrylic backboard and landing softly into the goal’s nylon netting. I find myself admiring him a moment, his lean muscles fitting perfectly in his navy blue shorts, gray wicking muscle shirt, white crew socks and green sneakers; I know it’s not possible, but there doesn’t appear to be any fat on his body. And though the overhead lights glisten the sweat on his face and arms, his hair remains perfectly parted, its streaks of gray suggesting experience rather than age.

We shoot around for about a minute, and after finally managing to make a shot I remember why I had arrived early. I’m about to ask Murph how long he had been married, when he cuts me off while firing a jumper  — “How’s Darci these days?”

I’m annoyed, since I’m the one who needs to be asking the questions. But there’s no way Murph would know that, and even suspected my impatience could throw off this conversation. “She’s fine.” I launch a set shot which clanks off the rim, as Murph picks up a loose ball; I’m about to ask the same question about Steph, but he intercepts again — “Still thinking about proposing to her?”

I stare at him a moment, as basketballs bounce lightly around me. What was it — three, four weeks ago, Murph saw my distraction during one of our chess matches, and I’d admitted to thinking Darci and I either needed to get married, or split. Oddly enough, it was also one of the few times I’d beaten him. A ball nudges my right leg, and I shake my head. “You know, I’ve been having second thoughts. I mean, we got a good thing going as it is — why complicate our relationship?” I dribble towards the hoop and then leap for a layup, which bounces too hard and high off the backboard, touching nothing on its way down.

I’m standing under the hoop, as Murph fires a 10-foot jumper. “There are other considerations, you know.” His shot touches nothing but net — whoosh; the ball falls into my arms, and in accordance with the you make it you take it ethos of the shootaround, bounce the ball over to where he’s now standing, at the free-throw line.

He pauses, stares down the hoop, and fires his shot. “Security.” Whoosh. He gathers in my pass, and backs up behind the three-point line.

“Social acceptance.” Whoosh.

He walks in a few steps, turns his back to the hoop. “An end to rumors.” He leaps, spins, fires. Whoosh.

He picks up my pass, begins dribbling across the top of the key. “People stop with the probing questions.” A running hook shot — whoosh.

I’m mesmerized, unable to do anything other than continue feeding the ball to Murph; I lose track of how many shots he makes in a row, but I feel his every word searing into memory. A baseline jumper, no backboard support — “People assume they know all they need to know about you.” Whoosh.

Four feet behind the three-point line. “You’re married — which means you’re something.” Whoosh.

Back at the free-throw line. “But in a way — ” he closes his eyes, shoots — “it’s like you’re nobody at all.” Whoosh.

Two guys approach our end of the court, call out to Murph, and I recognize their faces from work. We have enough to play against the guys on the other end of the court, and the rest of the evening is a blur, as I focus on keeping up; I’m the weakest player, but play well enough to earn some nods of respect. Another player from work arrives, and Murph excuses himself, explaining he needs to be up early tomorrow morning; I consider leaving as well, but dropping out now would be awkward, and letting Murph know I was following him would be even more awkward. 

Opening Shot

[Updated 10/25/2016]

And it’s not until I’m in the locker room, pulling up shorts I bought that afternoon at Dick’s over a pair of high-tops I haven’t worn in over a year, that I remember how much I hate playing basketball, mostly because I suck at it. It’s not that I’m unathletic — I competed in state tournaments in high school cross-country, and was a four-year starting fullback on the soccer team — but I can’t dribble or shoot, my vertical leap has all the height of boucing bowling ball, and I don’t like the physical contact required for effective defense and rebounding. These guys from work play every week, and if they’re as competitive as Murph is when playing chess, I’m in for a long evening.

But as I walk out onto the bustling hardwood courts, I remind myself that basketball’s not what’s brought me here tonight. I’m going to play another game this evening, one that’s very different, an intelllectual rather than physical challenge. And when I see Murph glide for a layup in a far court, I know it’s time to start that game.

The large gym has four courts, two of which have games in progress, with another game about to begin on a third. Three men are at the near end of the fourth court, shooting brown Spauldings at the bright orange hoop. Murph is by himself at the other end; it’s several minutes before seven, and my hunch about arriving early appears prescient. I’d seen a couple nameless faces from work appear as I’d exited the locker room; I’m only going to have a few minutes alone to interrogate the source of this mystery.

Murph sees me coming, then bounces a pass in my direction. My athletic instincts take over, and my hands slap onto the rubber sphere, as my legs push up from the floor and arms extend up, the basketball propelling from my fingertips and ascending in an arc, until the force of gravity takes hold and the ball descends down, towards the circular opening at which it had been aimed.

And then continues falling, several inches short of the goal, touching nothing until it finally falls, landing on the court with a pamb that sounds like an exclamation point to a cry of disappointment.

Fresh Approach

It’s nine thirty the following morning. I’ve answered a few messages, and now I’m walking towards Murph’s office. He’s there (not surprising, since I’d checked his calendar before leaving my desk), alone, reading a document, his phone in its cradle.

I’m about to walk into his office, when I pause a moment, and focus on his left hand, lying on top of the desk. He’s wearing a gold band, on the ring finger. But so do actors. I walk into his office like it’s my apartment.

“Heya.” Murph looks up, his eyes registering momentary surprise. I point with my thumb behind my right shoulder — “You still play basketball on Thursday?”

Surprise returns to his face. “Most weeks, yeah. If I don’t have anything else going on.”

This might be easier than I expected. “Steph got plans for you this week?”

He leans back in his chair, lacing his fingers into a headrest. “Didn’t know you played.”

Not so easy after all. “Been a while, but now that I’m full-time, figure I need to start playing with the big boys.”

Murph moves his hands to the chair’s armrests. “Tomorrow, at 7. See you then.”

I leave his office feeling victorious in the effort to take my investigation right to the source. Searching for clues on the Internet had become frustrating, and I needed a fresh approach. Meeting Murph outside the office, away from work — there should be more opportunities to catch him off guard, get him to expose a revealing detail of his personal life. Whatever mysteries Murph is hiding, will soon be uncovered.