Death of the Third Person by Bill Capron
I am totally color-blind. My friends think I live in a featureless world of black and white and gray, dark and uninteresting; mostly they are wrong because they think too much of color, but in one sense they are on the mark; strip out the noise of color, and the world is less confusing, less wonderful, less beautiful. Less is simpler; I am a man who doesn’t complicate things. That said, even in my world there are things so complicated they make my head hurt; Bob Bobbins is one of those, though to him his life couldn’t be simpler.
How to explain a human oxymoron, a living logical impossibility? First, there are us, the normal people who live our lives in the first person; everyone we think we know is constructed in our first person heads from what our eyes and ears tell us; but no one knows what another person really thinks about anything. I look at my best friends, and I have no idea what goes on in their heads. Maybe it’s an elaborate show staged to fool me; but no playwright, no matter how devious, how god-like, could invent a Bob Bobbins.
I met Bob Bobbins ten years ago in San Francisco, in my pre-PI life. Bob is black, but he never mentions it, since it isn’t a defining characteristic. Those who remember Bo Jackson, the football player – can it be that long ago? – knew him to say, “Bo doesn’t like that,” or, “That’s not Bo’s way,” or, “Bo runs to daylight,” but he was merely substituting Bo for I; it’s called illeism, and it’s odd enough, but it is only a trick of speech.
Not Bob; he lives the present tense in the first person, but his past tense life is a third person event. If Bob wrote the story of his day, he would use sentences like, “Bob, he called his sister to discuss their mother’s new boyfriend.” Bob can say the words, “I am going to the store,” but an hour later it is, “Bob, he went to the store.” Always “Bob, he …” but that doesn’t start to describe it.
Sometimes I see a hint of it in celebrities; the other day I saw some Billy Bob character talking about his wife, the love of his life, how he had never been in love before; then the Good Morning America reporter mentions the woman is his fifth wife. So the now-Billy Bob is the loving, sensitive guy, but the then-Billy Bob was a typical rutting male, trading relationships for sex free of emotional baggage. That’s Hollywood and the story will play out the same for the sixth wife. Who knows, we may all have a little third person in us, but nothing like Bob Bobbins.
When I first met Bob, I thought his affliction was that a trait of speech, that illeism, or even the celebrity thing, but it wasn’t long before I learned otherwise. In his head Bob only has the now; that’s not to say Bob doesn’t have memories, because he does, but some part of him says Bob-him, not Bob-me; this Bob-him is like someone Bob knows completely, but not intimately. I can ask Bob how he feels now and get a straight answer, but I can’t ask him how he felt yesterday because he doesn’t know. Now-Bob doesn’t have a yesterday, and then-Bob is not the same man as now-Bob.
You think it confuses you? Ha! I was confused from the first moment I got a handle on it. In fact, it was when I understood what was really going on that it got confusing. After all these years, I grasp the outline of it, imagine its shape, but the reality eludes me.
Bob and I share the same circle of friends; that is, my friends are his; Bob doesn’t have any other friends. It is impossible to get close to the guy, unless you first know about his problem and take the time to get past it. I made the effort because Bob intrigued me, and I wanted to know how his mind worked. I never found out, but we became friends, the three of us, me, now-Bob, and then-Bob.
There are times when it can be tough talking to Bob, even when you know him as well as I do; imagine how tough it was for the cops.
Bob calls me at my office, mixing his now and then, “C.B., Bob, he’s in big trouble. I’m at the police station. You’ve got to save him.” No lawyer, just me, good friend of first and third person.
On reflex I call Denise Richards, queen secretary for the lawyers of Whitman, Howard, Ormand, Masters and Edmonds, or, as we in the know call them, WHO-ME? She says Walt Edmonds will meet me at the station. I catch a cab downtown.
Detective Maureen McMartin collars me as I make my way to the interrogation room. We share a friend, homicide cop Dennis Doyle, and to my disappointment not much else. She stands real close, cranes her neck; she doesn’t hide her irritation; “Hey, Green, your friend is running me around in circles.”
I ignore her chagrin. “What are you holding him for?”
The redhead is a good cop, good at maintaining the assumption of innocence, no matter what her brain tells her. “Suspicion of murdering his wife.”
A picture of the dissipated leech of a woman comes to me. “Christa’s dead?” I have a sudden surge of happiness for Bob.
She hears the relief behind my question and puts space between us. “Yes, shot in the head, in the kitchen.” She changes her voice to imitate Bob, and bobs her head the way he does when he’s nervous. “Bob, he was at work, alone.”
I can’t help myself, I chuckle. “It’s the way he talks.”
She doesn’t see the humor of it. “It’s confusing as all hell.”
I shake my head. “You don’t know the half of it, Detective.”
She holds up her hands, palms out. “Yeah, well I can’t figure out what he’s saying.”
“I can help. Let me talk to him.”
She cocks her head and asks a question with her light gray eyes.
“Hey, he doesn’t only talk that way. Look, you sit in, leave it to me; watch the show. Okay?”
We turn to the sound of hard heels on the tile floor. “What about Edmonds there?” She doesn’t care for criminal lawyers, especially Walt.
Walt approaches wearing a practiced lawyerly frown. I turn him around, say I was too quick on the trigger, that I’ll call if the status changes. He isn’t happy, but it’s not my job to keep Walt happy.
“Okay, detective, let’s go and see Mr. Bobbins.”
She starts down the hall.
I speak at her back, “I meant it, about letting me do the talking, so don’t interrupt.”
She isn’t happy either; I get over it.
We sit down; I say, “Hi, Bob, the detective say’s you’re giving her a tough time.”
He points at me. “Bob, he told the truth.”
“Okay. Let’s start at the top.” I look to McMartin, then back to Bob. “Tell me about Bob’s day.”
Bob smiles; he has someone to talk to. “Bob’s day was tough, even before this. He was working real late on the new graphics, didn’t want to go home to Christa. You know Christa, she has been crapping on Bob for a long time. Bob, he was getting ready to leave.”
I’d explain how Bob ends up married three years ago, but I haven’t a clue. “Why did Bob stay around so long?”
A look of skepticism settles on the pretty detective’s face; she sees but she doesn’t believe. Bob is talking about someone else. The first time I saw it for what it was, we were playing poker, and Bob started to complain about how Bob played so badly, lost all his money, the then-Bob, that is, not the now-Bob. There seems to be, at best, a tenuous connection between the two.
“Bob, he thought she would straighten up her act.”
I know Christa. “It wasn’t going to happen.”
“Bob, he’s not so bright maybe.”
“Were Bob and Christa getting it on?”
He shakes his head without embarrassment, as if it has nothing to do with him. “No, Christa wasn’t into sex any more.”
I need to show the detective what we are dealing with. “What do you think Christa was into?” Now-Bob looks confused. “I don’t know.” A pause; “Not directly that is.”
That is where it gets tough, understanding how the soon to be oblivious now-Bob assimilates life to construct the third person then-Bob. If it happened when he went to sleep it might be more understandable, instead of right there in front of me while we are talking; it makes my head hurt.
I rephrase my question, “What did Bob think Christa was into?”
“Bob, he thinks lesbians and drugs.”
“Bob saw Christa using drugs?”
“No. He saw Christa selling drugs.”
“What did Bob think of the lesbians?”
“Bob, he didn’t like it.”
I ask the one question that matters since now-Bob would never lie for then-Bob, “Did Bob kill Christa?”
He was matter-of-fact, “No. He did not kill Christa. Bob, he was at work.”
“Anybody see Bob at work?”
The detective lets out a long breath; I keep my eyes on Bob.
“He doesn’t think so. He used his key to lock up when he left.”
I walk the pretty detective out of the room. “I know you’d like it to your own satisfaction. I don’t know how to do that. But Bob didn’t kill Christa.”
Her head bobs again; sarcasm drips from her words, “Yeah, right, you know that.”
I steeple my fingers, press my lips to them. “Listen, detective, we’re dealing with two people here. I’ve been doing it a long time, and I almost understand him. We got the now-Bob, he’s the guy we’re talking to, then there’s the then-Bob, he’s the guy everything more than ten minutes old happened to.”
She runs her fingers through thick dark gray mop I am told is red; the wiry hair crackles with electricity. “You mean like a split personality?”
“No.” I think on it. “Maybe. It’s like now-Bob is a different guy, doesn’t care much for then-Bob either, and he would never lie for him.”
Skepticism marks her face. “So how’s he function?”
I take my best shot at it, “He works for a software company; he does a lot of now-stuff with then-knowledge. Not so tough. Anyway, he’s got a real special knack with code, like something both Bobs can share, and he’s had the same supervisor for twenty years. She asks the same question every day, ‘So, tell me what Bob did?’ Now-Bob never lies about then-Bob’s progress. She and I talk about it. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The detective rubs the disbelief from her eyes. “Right.”
I shrug. “Detective, now-Bob has no idea what then-Bob thinks, really thinks, about anything. He knows nothing of intent or motivation. He only knows then-Bob’s tone of voice, body language, that sort of thing, like it was a character he saw in a movie, or a book he read. Sure, he can draw conclusions about what then-Bob thought, but in reality he doesn’t know that much more about what then-Bob thought than you or I do.”
Frustration tinges the words, “So what am I supposed to do?”
“Take a day, assume he didn’t do it, and see where it leads you.”
She shakes her head.
“Unless you think more questions will clear it up.”
She sighs; “What do I tell the captain? He’ll laugh me out of the office.”
I can’t help her there, “I don’t know. Why don’t you wait for the evidence? You’re good at that. I’ll talk to Bob. You can keep him for twenty-four hours. He’ll sign anything you need.”
Her tone is begrudging, “I’ll give it a shot.”
She gets defensive, “But you get one chance like this to put my ass on the line, Green. If Bob, now-Bob, then-Bob, or any Bob killed his wife, I’ll be toast.”
“So blame me, Maureen.”
“It’s McMartin, Detective McMartin to you, and, for your information, it doesn’t work that way.” She doesn’t much like me using her first name; it’s a bit too familiar.
~ ~ ~
McMartin calls me at the office; “Green, you better get Edmonds down here for your client. We booked him for murder.” There are no grays in her voice.
“Can I talk to Bob?”
I hear the hedging, “We’ve got a psychiatrist set to talk to him, if it’s okay with Edmonds. And if Edmonds asks me nicely, you can talk to him too.”
I call Walt before making my way to the police station.
The detective takes me to a room off the area where her cubicle is; there is a manila file on the corner of the table; she isn’t happy.
I am irritated too. “What, you couldn’t wait one day?”
Her gray eyes blaze. “Yeah, right. I said I’d wait for the evidence. Two hours and we had all we needed. I am sitting with the captain, telling him your story, when this shows up.” She taps the file.
“How well do you know Mr. Bobbins?”
I get the feeling I am about to learn more, and I am not going to like it. “I’ve known him for ten years.”
“Did you know he hasn’t always been like this?” She rotates her index finger at her temple.
“No, but I guessed it. He can’t have made it through high school or college like that.”
With typical female incredulity, “You never asked him?”
“No, Detective, it never came up.”
She shakes her head. “What is it with you men? You know each other forever, and you don’t know a damn thing. Skin deep, you’re all skin deep.”
I needle her because I can, “Problems at home, Detective?” Fourteen year-old daughter or her soon-to-be husband, who knows, but no reason to take it out on me.
The gray eyes light up. “Get off my case, Green. It’s not my problems we’re discussing.” She rearranges her face. “Look, it says here the man shot his first wife, eighteen years ago. They found him walking the streets, banged up, didn’t know who he was, where he was. Later they found his car crunched against a tree. They took him to the hospital, gave him a sedative. When he woke up, his entire past was third person, like you said, then-Bob. His lawyers used it as a defense. He spent a year in a loony bin. He got okayed to return to society, barely. His wife wasn’t so lucky.” She says that to needle me, because she can; she doesn’t mean it.
I am worried. “That doesn’t prove anything about now.”
McMartin frowns. “We found the gun in the dumpster where he works. As you may know, it is a secure location.”
I know; I nod.
“No prints on the gun or the bullets.”
I wait her out.
“The gun was legal when he bought it twenty years ago. The file says he claims he lost it before his first wife was killed.”
“What does Bob say?”
She imitates him again, but there is a more understanding feel to it; “Well, now-Bob said then-Bob bought the gun. Bob, he didn’t know where the gun got to.”
“Let me guess.”
She taps the file. “No need to guess, Green, I got it all right here. It was faxed up from San Francisco. Very preliminary, but eye-balling it, the bullet that killed his first wife, its markings match the one we took out of Christa.”
I have an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. “What’s Bob say?”
The girl is angry, but I can’t tell why. “Which Bob? Anyway, who cares what Bob says? The evidence says he’s guilty.”
She pushes the file at me. “I’ve got one path to follow.”
I pull the file to me. “And?”
She runs a short practical fingernail along scarred light-gray lipstick. “I don’t believe in one path. It’s not good cop work. You know that?”
I know about her; I nod.
“I’ve got my doubts, but …”
I tap my forefinger against the file and wait.
“… the captain’s got a pipe up my butt for even suggesting we go slow, what with the evidence. You understand?”
She speaks in grays, black and white being a bit too precipitous for such a cautious female; she says case closed; it doesn’t matter what she thinks.
~ ~ ~
Walt asks, “You want me to sit in?”
I hear it in the tone of his voice, he doesn’t want to. A lawyer can know too much, especially if his client is guilty. I shake my head. Walt parks his two-hundred-and-sixty pounds at the bench outside the little meeting room, across from the guard; he leafs through a stapled report.
Bob looks dejected; he nods, but he doesn’t offer his hand.
I get right to it, “Why don’t you tell me about Bob’s past.”
“Bob, he has a long history.”
I let the vacuum between us work on him.
“And you never asked.”
That’s right, I never asked; I think the detective has men pegged pretty well. “Why don’t you start with the murder of Bob’s first wife, Betty.”
Bob’s head rises and falls with the words, “Betty was shot. They said Bob did it.”
“Did Bob do it?”
He shakes his head. “No. Bob, he didn’t do it. If he did, I’d know.”
“Tell me about it.”
He is momentarily confused, then, “Bob, he fell asleep at the wheel, hit a tree.”
“And you’ve been like this ever since.”
He frowns at the use of ‘you’.
My irritation bubbles over, “You know what I mean, Bob, that’s when the third person Bob came into existence.”
He raises his shoulders. “That’s what they tell me. I don’t see it.”
I change the topic because I have to, “Tell me about Bob’s first wife.”
“Betty was a nice girl, but Bob, he had a girlfriend, Candy Apple. She was really gone on him. Bob, he felt bad about it.”
I didn’t read about a girlfriend in the file. “What happened to her?”
Bob looks inside at old memories. “Bob, when he got out of the jail, he wouldn’t talk to her. He acted like he didn’t know her.” It is a now-Bob moment in the past tense.
“Why didn’t Bob tell the police about her?”
“By the time Bob remembered who she was, he was already free.”
“I don’t understand.”
Bob explains a man he doesn’t know, “Bob, when he had the accident, he was all confused. The thoughts, his past, it got put together in pieces. It took a long time to straighten it out. After a while, Bob remembered everything.”
“But not killing Betty?”
“No. Bob, he didn’t kill Betty.”
“How come you kept the gun?”
“I don’t have a gun. Bob, he didn’t have it either.”
I think about that. The cops, during their interrogation, probably asked the same questions, might even have gotten the same answers. The problem is believing; I believe; in fact, I never doubted. It’s black and white to me; the gun followed Bob.
I call a detective agency in San Francisco and ask them to trace Candy Apple.
The next day they fax me a short report; Candy Apple entered a psychiatric treatment facility in San Ramon seventeen years ago; she was committed by her mother, Della. Seven years ago Candy Apple hung herself in her room; the obituary said she was survived by her mother.
The agency said the mother had remarried and divorced; her new name was Crabbe. Della Crabbe, Bob’s supervisor for twenty years. She brought him to Portland when she moved up from the Bay Area six years ago, two years after I got here. What didn’t I ask the previous day, or maybe now-Bob and then-Bob aren’t going to tell me no matter what.
Mine is a mean business, shaded in a noir-ish black. Most of the people involved in crimes are bad guys, a few times none of them are. I don’t know about then-Bob, or for that matter pre-then-Bob. Was he a nice guy? I can’t know enough to make that judgment. I know Della, though, and she is a nice woman; and she understands Bob, but who knows what other people think? Not me.
I talk to McMartin; the news makes her happy and sad; she is a woman, and she sees all sides of it from the git-go. Men don’t do that.
Six hours later we are in her cubicle waiting for Bob to process out. McMartin says Della confessed on the way to the station. Della tells McMartin that her daughter, Candy, was scum. Somehow, after twenty years of being Bob’s boss, at least since the accident, Della came to think of Bob as her child, disabled, needing her protection. When she figured out her daughter killed Betty Bobbins in a fit of obsessive jealousy, she had her committed. She told the detective how her first husband stalked her for years before cancer killed him, that she was a woman who understood obsessions, and that Bob Bobbins was the innocent victim of one. So she developed an obsession of her own; she became his guardian angel. She killed Christa to save Bob. Who’d have thunk it.
The detective’s frown makes me uneasy. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
She pushes it out, “Bob got beat up by his cell mate this morning.”
“Is he okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“Then-Bob,” she pauses to take in some air, “he’s dead.”
I know what she means; like an idiot, I repeat myself; “What do you mean?”
“Bob doesn’t live in the third person anymore.”
I take it in, roll it around in my head. “I should be happy for him?”
Again, she is a woman who sees all sides; “I don’t know.”
I see her struggling with an idea; I wait.
“I got to like then-Bob, and now-Bob. They were special.”
I know what she means.
I meet Bob in the waiting room; he is bruised around the eyes. He straightens his tie, we shake hands, he’s a new guy; I see it in his eyes. He is afraid, like those stored up third person memories might be reminders of what he hadn’t been, a picture window on eighteen empty years.
Still, old habits die hard. “Bob, all that time, he was innocent.”
He doesn’t seem all that happy about it.