An Indian Summer kind of day--nearly 85, cobalt blue sky, not a breeze to be had.
Rick placed the stone on the temporary marker, white stone on white stone.
Rita did the same. Hers was grey, smooth.
They stood there quietly for a few moments, staring down at the mound of dark soil, the marker a small marble rectangle, LUZ RIVAS etched in Roman letters.
They turned and walked down the hill towards one of the pathways that wove among the tombs, headstones, and angel statues of Green-Wood Cemetery.
“So how’d you solve it?” asked Rick’s husband Joe--a teddy bear in size, shape, and gentility.
Rick joked: “Brilliant deductive reasoning and a liberal use of a Ouija board.”
“Come on. Seriously. How?”
“Actually, there was nothing to solve.” Rick sipped his latte. “We literally stumbled our way into it. It was very sad actually. And raised lots of questions for us.”
“So tell me.”
Rick turned to their friend, Rita. “You wanna start?”
“Why not?” Rita Mendez--salt-and-pepper hair, slim as a rail, queen of the pullover sweater-for-every-occasion--raised a hand to get their waiter’s attention. “But first another round.”
“Sounds good. I’ll hit the john while we wait.” Rick got up, leaving Joe in the fullness of Rita’s larger-than-life persona. He loved Rita; he always considered her one of the great fringe benefits of his marriage to Rick. The Rick and Rita Show had been going on for years, ever since they’d first met at the Natural History Museum, and it was clear to Joe when he married Rick that his sidekick--the irrepressible “Miz Rita Mendez”--was part of the deal, which was just fine with Joe; he rarely felt this comfortable around others. But that’s Rita’s special talent, isn’t it? She puts everyone at ease.
Rita leaned in, taking advantage of Rick’s absence. “So tell me. How’s he really feeling about all this? Trust me, it was--is--a real struggle for both of us.”
“He hates how things unfolded, but I don’t know all the details. He hasn’t shared everything yet. He wanted you to tell me. I think he took things a bit hard.” He looked up to make sure Rick wasn’t in eye-shot, then patted her arm. “Listen, before he gets back, I just wanna say thanks for letting him be your October roomie every year. Schlepping back and forth from Saratoga on Amtrak--over five hours each way--can get old very fast, so thanks. Of course, that means I have to cook for myself for a month--and learn to love the dust bunnies.”
Rita laughed: “Honey, you know I love Rick. My pleasure. As for the cooking--it’s called ‘take out,’ sweetie. And your dust bunnies?” She shrugged playfully. “It gives him something to do when he gets back.”
“I’m not sure he appreciates my lack of domesticity.”
“Honey, he’ll live.”
Returning, Rick made his way through the packed coffee shop. There were a few colleagues from the Museum nodding to him or wishing him well.
When he sat down, he let out a huge breath. “I wonder if people have found out. About what happened. About us.”
“Let’s not be paranoid, hon.”
Joe was clearly in the dark. “So, back to the story. Rick waited til tonight to tell me anything.”
Rick squeezed Joe’s cheek: “I know, I know. I’m such a mean husband.”
“You are, you are.” He rolled his eyes.
“So, you wanna hear the story?”
“Shoot.” Joe leaned back. “What the hell happened?”
He had no idea what he was in for.
“Hi, baby.” Carlos Rivas leaned over to kiss his fourteen-year-old daughter’s forehead and then produced a small skull from behind his back. “Look at this.” Wearing white gloves to protect it, he seemed like a magician to her, pulling something magical from a hat.
Luz gave a weak smile. “Chad?”
“Chad.” He confirmed.
It was their nickname for the cast of the Sahelanthropus tchadensis skull in the Museum’s Human Origins exhibit.
“But how?” Her voice was weak but still showed her excitement.
“Daddy borrowed it for a few days. For you.”
As a very precocious little science nerd, she knew the Museum and how specimens--even casts of specimens like “Chad”--were safe guarded. Still she smiled, knowing full well that borrowing--even borrowing by the Director of Security--probably wasn’t quite the right word.
“But do we say anything?” Rick asked. “That’s the real question we’ve got to tackle.”
He and Rita were at Uno’s on Columbus and 82nd--their favorite hangout across from the Museum, sitting in their normal spot--the corner high table in the front bar--attempting to eat their customary salads--goat cheese, walnut, with berries for her; chicken Waldorf for him. Tonight, food tasted bland.
“I just hate the whole thing.”
“Me, too. But...”
“But...” Rita was resigned.
Rick put down his fork. He didn’t feel hungry any more. No use forcing it.
“He’ll lose his job. That’s for sure.”
“Probably.” This was uglier than he wanted. “I mean, I know why he did it, but still.”
“The daughter who’s dying.” She shook her head. “There are no words.”
Sue, their usual server, came over to ask if everything was all right.
“Of course, honey.” For Rita, everyone was a honey or a sweetie. “Trust me, it’s not the salad. It’s a work thing.”
“Ah. Got it. Hope it gets better.”
“You have no idea,” Rick said.
They were alone again.
“So.” Frustrated sigh.
“So.” He attempted a mouthful of salad. “When we caught him with the T. rex model, he kind of begged, didn’t he?”
“Tears. The whole nine yards.”
“Part of me is pissed as hell.” He put down his fork. “He knew what he was doing, Rita. He knew he could get caught and did it anyway.”
“Yeah, but not caught by a couple of docents who happened to be doing after hours studying a new exhibit.”
“That’ll teach us to be proactive about our tours.” He tried another mouthful. “Suddenly I hateT. rexand his friggin’ feathers.”
“Our problem is we understand what he did,” Rita said. “Why he did it.”
“We caught Carlos red-handed. But then we heard his side of the story. But...”
“Fucking but...” Rick leaned over and grabbed a clipboard from the messenger bag hanging over the back of his chair.
“You filled out a report?”
“I did, but I don’t know what to do with it.”
“Let me see.”
“It’s just an outline. Nothing formal at this point.”
He handed the report across the table--and she read the top page out loud:
“Report made by Rita Mendez and Richard Finley on October 10th, 2020.” She looked up.
“If you don’t want your name on it, I can take it off.”
“No, no. We’re in this together.”
Carlos showed Luz the globe, and then--best of all--he rolled over a cart with the small T. rex model, putting it as close as he could to the hospice bed stuffed into the downstairs den. He pulled down the side bars so she could reach out, though all the tubes in her arms made that a bit awkward. Still, she stretched her hand, touched the brown feathers on its belly and smiled.
“He’s something, right? Who knew? All those feathers.”
“All those feathers.” He could barely hear her. She seemed far away. “All those feathers.”
He tried with every ounce of his will to resist breaking into sobs--the ones trapped in his chest and throat, the sinking, plunging fist of tears that kept radiating from his chest down into his gut. Such hell, watching a child die.
Rita continued reading:
“On October 5th, at around 6:30 PM, Rita Mendez and I entered The Hall of Human Origins to do research for an upcoming Spotlight Tour of the Hall. One of our first stops is always the wall entitled Our Family Tree, which contains skull casts of key primitive hominins, the earliest of which is Sahelanthropus tchadensis. We noted immediately that the S. tchadensis skull was missing. At first, we thought it might have been removed for repair or for study, but we noted that the usual notice (i.e. “Temporarily Removed”) wasn’t there, but we didn’t think much of it at the time.
“Two days later, on October 7th, also around 6:30 PM, Ms. Mendez and I were on the Fourth Floor, preparing our Spotlight Tour called “Fossils” and noticed that one of the globes depicting our planet during the late Mesozoic Era (between the Hall of Early Mammals and Hall of Later Mammals) was missing. Once again, we didn’t make too much out of the absence since all the globes on the fourth floor are either in need of repair or cleaning.
“Then, the following day, October 8th, also on the Fourth Floor, at approximately 8:15 PM (after a meeting of the volunteers, docents, and educators), we entered the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. We were planning to do a quick review of the updated label copy for Tyrannosaurus rex as well as the new display case showing an artist’s rendering of a feathered T. rex. As we came around the bend from the gift shop into the Hall (at the west end of the Hall by Coelophysis), we noted that the security lights were on--rather than the much brighter, full Hall lighting--and that there was a slight clattering noise coming from the right hand (northern) corner near the T. rex. (This is the corner where the new display case is located.) We thought it was probably a maintenance person, but we approached cautiously because we didn’t want to startle him or her. When we got closer, we saw our Security Chief, Carlos Rivas. He had apparently removed one of the Plexiglas panels from the display case and was about to reach in towards the two-and-a half-foot model of the feathered T. rex. We honestly didn’t know what to think and when we said “Hello,” Mr. Rivas was clearly startled.
“We asked him what was going on and rather than giving us any explanation, he tearfully begged us not to say anything. We still didn’t fully understand what was going on.
“After a little back and forth conversation, he confessed that he was going to ‘borrow’ the T. rex model, feign an investigation, and then return it along with the S.tchadensis skull and Mesozoic globe.
“He told us that he had taken these objects--with all intentions of returning them--for his daughter Luz who is currently under hospice care at the Rivas’s home in Brooklyn. Luz is fourteen and dying of Stage-4 brain cancer; the girl has always loved the Museum and has a particular interest in fossils and maps. The three objects--the skull, the globe, and the model--were only going to be in the Rivas house until she passed away, which might be a matter of a few days.
“Again, he begged us not to say anything. We didn’t know what to say. And so we opted to walk away, dumbfounded and profoundly uncomfortable. Stopping him then and there would make us “good citizens” of the Museum; letting him “borrow” the T. rex along with the skull and globe would make him a hero to his daughter.”
Rita looked at me. “That last paragraph needs lots of work. We saw what he was doing, Rick, and did nothing.”
“I know, I know, but read on.”
She frowned, but continued:
“All three objects ‘miraculously’ reappeared in the Security Office two days later--on October 10th--which we were to find out was the morning after Luz Rivas had passed away.
“We’ve heard from some of our friends in Security that there is erased CCTV footage; Rita and I assume that Carlos may have done this.
“On the one hand no damage was done--each object has been returned to its proper place and each object may have brought great joy to a dying girl. Yet the question of doing these things without permission or knowledge of the Administration is troubling...”
Rita looked up.
“And that’s all she wrote,” Rick said, trying to quip.
“How do you plan to end this report? Our lack of an immediate response is a big problem.”
“I know.” He took the clipboard back. “We know what we saw, but the real details’ll have to come from Carlos himself.”
“So the question is whether we become tattle-tales and try to explain why we waited to report all this--or just let him invent whatever bullshit story he’s gonna create to cover it all up, no one being the wiser.”
“Except for us.”
Rita attempted another forkful of salad but put it down. She was clearly thinking of what the Administration would say if they handed in a report. “Justifying to the Powers That Be why we said nothing won’t be easy. Of course, the reality is that apparently few, if anyone, actually noticed the missing skull and globe to begin with. And if they did, they’d have thought, like we did, that the objects were out for repair or study.”
“True, but he did take them, including T. rex. You couldn’t ignore a missing T.rex, especially since Carlos didn’t put up any kind of signage. If he’d played his cards better, a simple “Out for Repair” label or some such would’ve probably left no suspicion at all--unless, of course, Norell or one of the other paleos came through the Hall--which they could have. They would’ve known right away something wasn’t right.” He leaned back. “What the fuck do we do, Miz Rita?”
Rita stated the obvious: “If we say nothing and somehow someone finds out that we sat on the story for a few days, not only is Carlos in deep shit, but we are, too.”
Rick looked out the window at the evening rush hour traffic on Columbus Avenue. “This really sucks. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
“So,” Joe asked, “did you spill the beans? Or did you keep your mouth shut?”
“That’s the wild part,” Rick said. “We didn’t have to make a choice at all. Before we had to decide one way or the other, Carlos turned around and told the Administration everything. Told ‘em what he’d done. Frankly, I think he was so distraught by the oncoming death of his daughter that he couldn’t take another layer of emotional crap. As it turned out, Luz died later that very day.”
“Did he say anything about you guys catching him in the act?” Joe asked.
“That’s the tough part,” Rita said. “He told them we’d come to him the morning after the T. rex went missing to report its loss--which we hadn’t. He made it sound like we discovered the three losses, not that we’d caught him red-handed. As a result, after we left his office, he “decided’ to do the right thing.”
Joe could see how clearly distressed they both were by the whole story. “So he lied to keep you out of the equation.”
“Exactly.” Rita said. “Carlos told them we’d shown up the morning after andthat our visit had been the impetus for his confession. His part in the matter--all true. Our visitation--all lies.”
“Though it does say something about Carlos, doesn’t it?” Rick said. “Instead of getting us into potential hot water, he confessed and made us out to be the catalyst.”
Rita’s eyes showed her anxiety. “I hope we’re never put in a position like this again, having to decide one way or another. There’s no easy way.” She looked at both of them. “I just wanted to do right by the Museum, and I wanted to do right by a grief-stricken father. How the fuck does anyone choose?”
Rick put his hand on hers. “It’s never easy.”
Joe looked on for a moment, seeing how torn they both were. “Has anything happened since he confessed?”
“Well, the Administration handled it with felt-covered iron gloves,” Rita said, slightly more composed. “Carlos got demoted, but not fired. He’s been here for years, and they chalked up his behavior to grief. We heard he’ll still keep his benefits and retirement, but they’ve put Larson James as the Head of the Department. At this point, who knows what Carlos will do. I think he’s probably embarrassed as hell...”
“I think mortified is the better word,” Rick interrupted. “He’s ashamed; he’s broken in two by his daughter’s death; it’s a fucking mess.”
Joe was trying to decipher the look on his husband’s face. “So the brass doesn’t know you were ready to file a report? They just think you came to tell Carlos that the pieces were missing?”
Rick nodded. “We never had to decide whether to file or not file our report. But, like Rita said, it’s a real mess. The guy was totally crushed by his daughter’s illness; he wanted to do something for her. On the other hand, what if everyone at the Museum who had either the rank or the opportunity decided to ‘borrow’ things, as if the place were some kind of lending library. It’s a real scary thought that with a little imagination and chutzpah things can just disappear so easily.”
“I get that,” Joe said, “but I’m sure what this Carlos fellow did was the exception not the norm.”
“Thank God.” Rick was still clearly unsettled: “But I still feel like crap. I’m sorry he lost his position and sorry he lost his kid. What a fuckin’ horror for him and his wife. But I also feel like Rita and I were caught in the middle of a no-win situation.”
“It stinks,” Joe said simply.
They walked down the hill in silence.
Green-Wood Cemetery--even on a hot October afternoon--was a photographer’s paradise: The backdrop of the lower New York skyline; the lichen-covered, ivy-walled mausoleums; the brown, gold, yellow leaves dropping from the century-old trees.
Finally: “Now that Joe’s back upstate, has he said anything more to you?”
“Nada. I think he’ll be glad to have me back next week. Less long-distance drama.”
“It’s never dull with us two, is it?” She locked her arm around his as they walked the pathway.
“He’s used to it.”
“He’s a keeper.”
“Yup.” Rick smiled.
Her cell vibrated. A text. She looked to see who it was, but didn’t recognize the number.
“Wanna see who it is?” Rick gave the go-ahead.
She opened the message and responded. “Can I make a quick call? It’ll be easier.”
She walked down the path a few yards, leaned against a tree, made a call, seemed to have a friendly conversation, and, after less than a minute, returned. “Guess what?” She said. “That was Mary.”
“In the volunteer office?”
“The same. The President wants us to call him to make an appointment. He wants to give us”--she made air quotes--"a ‘recognition commendation’.”
“Seriously? What the fuck? Why? We didn’t do anything.”
She put her phone back into her shoulder bag. “Apparently what Carlos actually told them was that not only had we come in to report the losses but that after he told us what he’d done, it was us who encouraged him to tell the truth, that we convinced him. We helped him do the right thing.”
“But that’s not what happened. We walked away the night he took T. rex, and wrote up a report we never handed in.”
“Well, that ain’t what he told the President.”
“Fuck. I can’t accept a commendation. We didn’t do anything.”
“If I had to guess, I think that’s what impressed Carlos. We could’ve done something, but we didn’t.”
Rick took off his jacket, throwing it over his shoulder. “And then we visit his kid’s grave,” he said, and they started strolling again.
“In fucking million-degree heat.”
“Why?” He stopped and looked at her.
“Like we’ve been saying: Because we understand what he did, why he did it.”
“And that makes us saints or something?” They resumed their walk.
“Hardly. We came because empathy goes a long way. It’s a kindness.”
“I don’t want commendations.”
“Frankly, me neither.”
“We’ll decline,” he said.
“Tell him to put something in our files if he wants to.”
“Good idea. But even that.” He shook his head. “The guy was at his wits end and he did something for his kid--his version of Make a Wish Come True. He brought a flicker of joy to his girl’s final day. We could have fucked that up.”
She came to a stop. “You do realize what we’re saying, right? We wouldn’t have filed the report. Right?”
“After today? After seeing that grave? I doubt it.”
Suddenly there was a hint of a breeze and the sound of crickets confused by the reappearance of summer. “How about you?”
“Now, in this moment, in this place, I think I’m with you on this one, Ricky. Seeing what I saw today, I’m glad Carlos took the choice away from us. I think we would’ve felt like first-class schmucks if we’d filed the report.”
“Which then brings us back to our visit here today,” he said.
They were walking again. “Maybe we shouldn’t analyze, honey. Just accept we did something spontaneous. We’ll call Carlos and his wife later this week.”
“But we won’t say we came today. It’s our little gesture. Private. Okay?”
“Anonymous,” she agreed.
“That we understand.”
“And not just him,” Rick said. “It’s good to understand what being human is about. It’s good we understand that.” Again with the tears in his eyes: “The world’s a fucking brutal place.”
She put her hand on his arm. “Oh, sweetie.”
They looked at the skyline and listened to the quiet symphony of sounds tapping for attention.