As the third Frank Nagler mystery, “The Weight of Living” unfolds, new characters emerge.
Calista Knox becomes therapist and later companion for Leonard, Nagler’s blind bookstore-owning friend, who at the end of “A Game Called Dead” was hospitalized.
I like her.
“For months after that attack Leonard laid morosely in the hospital bed, eyes closed, pretending to be asleep, shunning visitors. He rarely spoke, even as the kids from the community center, Delvin Williams, Lauren, Bobby and Nagler took turns in reading him newspapers, books, or just chatting up recent events. Nagler knew he had seen this before, had seen it in his own mirror in the days that followed the death of his wife, Martha: The long slide to self-pity and forced solitude, the construction of the shell designed to block out the world, instead became a festering cauldron of anger.
“You’re doing what I did,” Nagler told Leonard one day.
Leonard at first just stared at the blank wall, then he sighed and rolled his head to face Nagler; his eyes were liquid and dark, swimming in the loathing Leonard felt for the world and himself.
“You’re right, Frank,” Leonard whispered. “And I do appreciate all the care that you and others have shown me, but I feel so useless…fat, blind, I can’t do anything for myself. I wished for once I didn’t need anyone.”
“Useless, oh Leonard. Don’t forget what you’ve done. The store. You saved that neighborhood even as the city was falling down around it. The friends you’ve made. The inspiration…”
“And I feel none of it Frank,” Leonard said as harshly and bitterly as Nagler could ever recall his voice.
Nagler sat silently. He had seen this side of Leonard many times before, but it passed. This time seemed deeper. He reached to hold his friend’s hand. “I’m always here, Leonard.”
Later, as he spoke with Leonard’s doctor, the plan to find Leonard a therapist or counselor was formed.
Thus, Calista Knox.
Thin, boyishly thin, but toned in a way that clearly came from long-term exercise and training. Eyes dark as coal, at first an apparent defense, but later, seen as probing. Hair dyed fire-engine red, cropped madly short, a gallery of tattoos on her arms and lower legs, and back-filling body of a tiger that was made visible to those in the bookshop the times she casually shrugged away the stares as she peeled off a shirt or hoodie and stood briefly naked from the waist up as she changed from her street clothes to workout garb before her sessions with Leonard.
As Nagler came to know her, he saw the carnival appearance masked a deep personal understanding of Leonard’s pain; the appearance deliberately chosen as off-putting, more than a “my freedom, fuck you,” but as a way to ease around the stiff and unnumbered rules, to work as an insider while being an outsider, dismissed by the rule makers as frivolous, even dangerous, instead working as a clown does – the red bulbous nose and white pancake face the disguise of an insurgent.
She was profane, loud, insistent and right. “Get off your fucking ass, Leonard,” she’d scream at him. “Ya got legs, use ‘em.
At first shocked, Nagler came to understand that Calista was exactly the person to rouse Leonard’s spirit. She was not brazen; she was honest.
“We were all too nice to him,” he told her one day.
She nodded. “Friends are like that,” she said. “Didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But it was not his feelings that were hurt, Frank. It was his soul. You all went through that trouble together. None of you want to remind the others of the pain. Well, I didn’t go through it. So I get to kick him in the ass to remind our boy that he is the leader of the pack and that he damn well better show it.”
She lifted her head and stared directly at Nagler. “People lie to one another all the time, Frank. Wear masks. I look at this little group and wonder who is lying, who will eventually tell the truth and who will pay for it.”
She walked away before he could respond, but silently Nagler knew she was right; the shuttering heart.
Nagler listened to Leonard’s protesting cries of pain, the anguish on his face as she called harshly for five more arm curls with the ten-pound weight, ten more leg presses, the admonishments – “you’re not gonna die from work, Leonard, you’re gonna die from sitting” – but he held back any comment; watched as Calista’s words became softer, the touch more tender, the brief hug after a workout lengthen to an embrace; watched as Leonard’s fumbling, blind hand reached for her face and tenderly caressed her cheeks and lips as Calista’s fierce eyes softened, and her hard visage retreated and she kissed his fingers.
For information on previous Frank Nagler Mysteries: