One night in 1987, Lois Rische's husband, Allen, the retired CIA field chief for Texas and New Mexico, was stepping into their car when he decided he had to return to the house. He was only gone for a few minutes. Lois thought nothing of it -- until later that evening, when they returned from the show they'd attended and she found that every shoe she owned had been piled in a mountain on her bedroom floor.
Someone had also been into Lois' closet and twisted her clothes into a snarled wilderness; drifts of scouring powder coated the bathtubs. Under Lois' bedclothes, and onto her pillow, someone had shaken a thick layer of dirt and black dog hair. Crowning the toilet seat was a tall, elaborate tower made of art books, picture frames, a Kleenex box and a large flask of bleach.
Someone else might have thought they'd been vandalized, but Lois Rische recognized the author of this chaos: it was her husband. And someone else might have flinched at the apparent evidence of Allen's hostility, which would, in fact, escalate later to include pesticides, booby traps and Indonesian head hunting knives. But Lois Rische saw it differently. She greeted her husband's handiwork with a sort of stunned awe. "It was difficult to believe," she points out gamely, "that in such a short period of time, he was able to accomplish so much." To Lois, the chaos in her bedroom -- and even the real danger to her that eventually followed -- were simply the tragicomic last act in a great love story. It's a story, Lois likes to say, of commitment.
Just before Montrose's Helena Street fades into the empty lots and wooden buildings that edge downtown Houston, Lois' Greek Revival house rises, proud and lonesome. Inside, Lois, an auburn-haired woman in her mid-sixties, tends an odd wonderland of apricot, peacock green and Venetian red rooms, all teeming with antiques and chinoiserie. Crammed though it is, the Helena Street house sidesteps claustrophobia. Its ceilings are too high, its cool air too bracing. Instead, the place exudes a mix of age and live sensuality.
This parlor is where Lois jotted her diaries during the seven years in which her ex-CIA husband transformed under Alzheimer's disease. Even at the time, Lois says, she couldn't help but laugh at much of what happened -- although the man she loved was vanishing before her eyes. Now she's taken the diaries and made a book of them, The Mariachis Are Gone, that she's determined to see in print. This April, in New York for her daughter's wedding, Lois heeded a friend's counsel about the best way to get her book noticed: she rang up Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker. "My message was, I didn't care to leave a message. I wanted to talk to Tina Brown personally," Lois says, either oblivious to or uncaring about how rare it is for an unknown writer to demand an audience with the venerable magazine's editor. As New Yorker staffers confusedly tossed her call back and forth to each other, Lois patiently and repeatedly insisted that she was in town from Houston, Texas, and that no one but Tina Brown would do on the other end. Finally, in exasperation, someone forwarded the call to Brown.
Lois, who to this day retains the floating voice and flirtatious glance of a confirmed Southern belle, politely explained to Brown that she had a book she thought would be fine for excerpting -- a book about love, Alzheimer's and one of the founding members of the CIA. Brown suggested Lois bring the book by her offices.
Lois delivered the package at once, but hasn't heard back yet. Although no one else has bitten either, she's not given up on publication. After all, Lois reasons, The Bridges of Madison County was a success, and it was mere fiction. Her story, on the other hand -- part romance, part black comedy, part high gothic -- is true. That's fortunate. Because otherwise, it might hardly seem believable.
By the time things started getting strange on Helena Street, Lois and Allen had been in love for seven years. In 1976, when they first met at the eye clinic where Lois worked, she was a widow in her mid-forties. Her first husband, with whom she'd moved to Houston in 1956, had died in 1962, leaving her with three school-age children. Lois, who had been raised in a middle-class family in Maryland and took pride in her independence, studied orthoptics at Baylor and began supporting her family.
Allen Rische, the tall, ruddy-faced man who walked into her office for an eye test, impressed her at once. In the first pages of her Mariachis, sketched out in brief paragraphs and snappy, lunch-date narration, Lois describes how quickly the two fell in love. Despite his Sears Roebuck suit with the too-short pants, the gray-haired, cowboy-booted stranger cut a smart figure. Halfway through the exam, he asked Lois to lunch. On the sea wall near Gaido's restaurant, the lively chemistry that would define their future romance took hold. Within a month, Allen and Lois were inseparable; three years later, they were married.
As Lois tells it, her new husband's charm was a mix of charisma, utter devotion and idiosyncrasies that were the only clues to his life in "the Agency." "Allen was good at just about everything," recalls his longtime friend and business partner, Henry Buck, "and he was interested in just about everything."
But Allen certainly didn't tell everything. Lois knew his basic biography: how his Dallas family was hard-hit by the Depression, how he'd graduated Texas A&M and worked for Humble Oil four years in Indonesia, and how, soon after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was recruited for military intelligence work on the South Pacific. In Washington, Rische and his first wife began what would be a family of seven children.
Then, in 1945, they'd moved back to Texas, where Allen established the CIA's first bureau for New Mexico and Texas. Though it might not seem the most promising arena for espionage, Houston, as a hub for the global oil industry, is a nerve center for data about oil and politics in other countries. It was part of Allen Rische's job to talk to everyone who might have such information. In 1969, he and his first wife divorced; she died in 1974.
Much more than this, though, Lois never really found out. By the time she met Allen, he had retired from the CIA and started up Houston's first pager business with Buck, an old friend from the Indonesian oil-field days. Outgoing, deeply protective of his friends and employees, and a man who liked his Remy Martin, Allen Rische never talked about what he'd done for a living.
The dash of mystery helped give his and Lois' life together a heightened, almost storybook quality. It was a quality, Lois says, that she learned to accept during her first visit to Allen's house. Guns, she noticed immediately, were everywhere. A dozen leaned on his bedroom wall alone. Lois inquired what they were for.
"Sweetheart," Allen told her, "We'll get along just fine, but first you must understand one thing ... that I operate on a need-to-know basis."
From the beginning of their romance, the Risches traveled constantly: antiquing expeditions, lavish vacations to Europe, long road trips in which they made no reservations and stopped when they felt like it. But their biggest project was rooted in Houston -- in the Greek Revival house on Helena Street. One day Allen took Lois to see a property he owned, a rickety frame house devoid of paint. The yard brimmed with what Allen termed his treasures: piles of cinder blocks, a dozen old toilets, two Volkswagen bugs, a decrepit rowboat and several rusted-out engines. To Lois, it was all rather refreshing: "I was impressed with the fact that it took such a little piece of trash to bring a look of pride to this man's face," she recalls. "Something basic about his personality was being unabashedly revealed to me, 'I am what I am.'"
Even more impressive, though, was the house's location: virtually next door to a huge white house for which Lois had lusted reverently since 1958. It was, as she puts it, "a decadent beauty," framed by Ionic columns, a balcony and a formal brick courtyard. Within a few months of their marriage, Allen bought the house for the two of them to refurbish. Eight months later, Lois was waking up in the house that she'd dreamed of for two decades.
In those first years, Helena Street was like a charmed circle. When Lois and Allen came home on their wedding night, they heard mariachi music: the Mexican family across the street was having a barbecue and singing. When they learned that their new neighbors were just married, the family threw more ribs on the grill, fashioned Lois a bouquet and feted the couple with wedding melodies and cold beer. Eventually, Allen grabbed his ukulele and joined in. In the years that followed, says Lois, she and Allen would join the Mexicans nearly every weekend for barbecue, beer and old-time mariachi tunes.
For as long as he was well, the lively man who would strike up a conversation with just about anyone was the only Allen Rische that Lois knew. True, he could be a bit set in his ways -- for the three years they lived in his house in Sharpstown, Lois was forbidden to cook dinner, and Allen did insist on always buttering her bread for her. And there was always that element of mystery to him. For such a gentle man, Allen's values system seemed very fierce. What, for example, could explain his antipathy for his children? More than once, he referred to his daughter Brenda as a "bitch"; Pat Gross, the Rische's housekeeper, remembers Allen steaming that all of his children were "reprobates." Lois never knew why.
Then there was the eerie matter of Rische's retarded son Andy. Although he and the former nanny who cared for him lived near Allen's beach house, the nanny never permitted the boy to go out with his father. One day she told Lois that the boy's mother had begged on her deathbed that Allen never be left alone with his son. A few months later, Allen told Lois why: he had meant to kill Andy when he was a baby. "My planning was so deliberate and meticulous that there was no way that I would have been caught," Allen said. "I still don't know why I didn't carry it out."
Though Lois learned to live without prying too much, it was a question from Allen that heralded the seven years of strangeness that would end their Montrose idyll. Riding the train from Venice to Vienna, on yet another of their leisurely trips, Allen suddenly asked, "What do you call those black things out there in the fields?"
"Cows?" Lois answered. "You mean the cows?"
Alarmed, she tried to forget the scene. Five months later, they returned home, and Allen began a two week series of tests at the Veterans Administration hospital. Allen, the doctors concluded, had Alzheimer's. Though its symptoms and pace differed from person to person, it was progressive and degenerative, ending in loss of intellectual functions and finally death.
That evening, Allen and Lois dined at the Houston Club. Allen took her hand and told her how much he loved her. He asked Lois to go along with his wishes to continue their lives as if he'd never been diagnosed. Then he repeated a request he'd made years before, after visiting his mother, who also had had Alzheimer's.
"When I get like my mother was," he told Lois, "I want you to take those necessary steps to see to it that I don't hang around some nursing home for years .... I sincerely hope that you will have the courage to carry out my wishes."
Pat Gross remembers the Alzheimer's diagnosis as well, though she recalls it coming six months, not two weeks, after her employers' return from Europe. And it seemed, Gross says, far longer. Odd things were beginning to happen on Helena Street.
Gross would finish cleaning a section of the house and put her equipment away in the closet. An hour later, her mops, cleansers and buckets would mysteriously spring up like mushrooms all over the house.
"I didn't know if he was playing the tricks or her," Gross says. "It plays with your mind." Before she was informed of the diagnosis, she suspected either Lois or Allen had gone mad. She considered leaving. "My husband said I should keep working there," Gross says now, "but to never turn my back on either of them."
Gross wasn't imagining things when she felt someone had singled her out. Allen had become consumed with driving her out of the house. On days that she came to work, dirty dishes showed up in the oven and trinkets would disappear from the parlor. Once, a Waterford crystal bowl appeared with a big crack in it, strategically placed for maximum visibility. "That damned Pat," Allen said. "We've got to get rid of her."
As Allen's disease worsened, though, it was Lois' sanity that became his target. No matter how ill he was -- and at the end of seven years of Alzheimer's, he could neither remember recent events, much of his vocabulary or why he had undertaken particular tasks -- Allen's shrewdness remained astonishing. "He's working on your mind," Pat Gross would tell Lois after each episode.
For the most part, Lois treated Allen's behavior with wry resignation. "There was no time for trying to explain it," she says, "I spent most of my time trying to keep up with him." When bills didn't appear as expected, Lois investigated: it turned out that Allen was methodically slipping the mail into the garbage. Over a period of three or four months, dozens of light bulbs went out all over the house. It was Pat Gross who realized Allen was meticulously unscrewing each bulb just enough to break the connection. Mechanical things still enchanted Allen, who'd always been something of a handyman. For seven years, he fiddled with an 18th-century clock in the foyer; finally, he got it going so that it clanged loudly and abrasively through 30 complete cycles a day. Sometimes he would amuse himself for hours listening to the whine of a 33 1/3 rpm record sped up to 45 rpm.
To make matters worse, Lois' children believed she was imagining things. Allen could still rise to a social occasion and be his old courtly self, and Lois' children flatly didn't believe their mother's stories. Not even their constant flat tires, which seemed to occur each time they visited the house, changed their minds. Over seven years, Lois' daughter got 32 flat tires. One day Pat Gross caught Allen red-handed: enraged by anyone who parked in front of the house, he had taken to slipping nails under each end of an offending car's tires, so that no matter where the car went, the tire would puncture.
Allen's peculiarities were slowly hardening into aggression. You could see it at first in small things, like the way he pinched and prodded Iris, their black Labrador, who yelped in pain but wouldn't leave Allen's side. One disastrous night at the opera, he fell asleep during the performance and began snoring loudly. Hustling him out of Jones Hall, Lois tried to retrieve his keys. But Allen snapped awake, threw her into his truck and clamped his hand firmly over her mouth. The moment she could, Lois leaped out the door and began tottering toward home.
"I pretended I belonged on Smith Street, downtown, alone at night," she writes. "Then came the unmistakable sound of the Chevy engine approaching from the rear. There was a slight screech of the brakes, and there it was in all its glory, the big yellow truck with the small decal on the window that read, 'DON'T FUCK WITH MY TRUCK,' and the simple blue-and-white bumper sticker that read, 'OPERA' ... Soon there came a loud cry. 'Hey, you stuck-up Yankee bitch, where do you think you're going?'"
With what dignity she could, Lois ignored her husband's shouts and made her way past Luther's, Harry's Barbecue and the Allen Center. Finally a squad car appeared and picked her up. When the policeman deposited her at Helena Street, Allen was there to greet her affectionately at the door. "Hello sweetheart, where have you been?" he asked. Lois told him, "Darling, to the opera, of course."
The worse Allen got, the more Lois and Pat Gross wondered whether the course of his deterioration was linked to something from his past. At times, his activities clearly just caricatured the things he had once loved. Allen still took great joy in scavenging, though his discrimination had by now vanished. Lois would keep him company as he perused Montrose and River Oaks trash heaps, Lois silently praying that no one she knew would glimpse her among the refuse. With Lois' help, he filled his study nearly to the ceiling with termite-riddled lumber, empty paint cans and broken glass. What didn't fit in the study found its way to the side yard, which Pat dubbed "Allen's Alley." Lois found herself plotting out routes for her daily errands in order to avoid junk piles that might catch Allen's eye.
But if Allen's scavenging instinct was at least familiar, Lois was at a loss to explain two other manias: shoplifting and booby traps. Starting around 1985, he began to come up with tricks that were so cunning, and so potentially dangerous, that both Lois and Pat wondered if they were some distorted vestige of Allen's past training in the CIA. Standing in front of the armoire that housed some of Allen's most sophisticated traps, Lois laughs ruefully and says, "I have no idea ... how would I know?" A spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association, though, says the ailment's manifestations are usually random. Colleen Webb, a former CIA colleague of Allen's, also discounts the notion. "He didn't get those things from his job," she says. "There were some sensitive operations that required some special skills. But not," she adds with a tiny smile, "any [skills] that were outlined in [Lois'] book."
Yet Lois found Allen's increasing craftiness otherwise hard to fathom. Who knew, before this, that he possessed such light hands? After he became ill, Allen became a dedicated thief. Lois rarely saw him in action; it was only later, when she began going through his collections, that she realized the extent of his shoplifting.
"There was a Breitling stopwatch ... three stainless steel dental tools, a small American flag, 47 trolls, 30 pieces of flatware, three silk ties from Neiman Marcus, an assortment of salt and pepper shakers and 35 ashtrays," she says. There was also an assortment of tools, hardware and other items. They all still carried price tags. Only once, after a meal at Butera's, did Pat catch Allen at work. The waiter did, too, and politely asked Allen at the door for the ashtray he'd taken. Allen relinquished it graciously. "I'm Allen Rische, and I used to be Texas field chief for the CIA," he said pleasantly. "My hands aren't as quick as they used to be."
Meanwhile, during his last three years at home, whenever the house got too quiet, Lois and Pat knew Allen was building something. His creations usually took about an hour's work, and he favored the guest-room, the pantry and the Venetian red study as his stages.
Quietly and meticulously, Allen would arrange 50 or so bottles of nails, pots and pans, boards and string so that the tug on a cupboard door would send all the contents crashing. The traps were always devised with a special attention to sound effects, producing spectacular showers of objects whenever Lois unsuspectingly opened a door. In the pantry, the avalanches always included canned goods and utensils. "What happened?" Allen used to ask, stone-faced, after each episode.
"Pat used to call it a war on my nerves," Lois says. "It was to startle me. I don't think his intention was to hurt me. We'd sit for hours and try to figure it out. His mind was gone -- we couldn't figure out how he had the mind to engineer these booby traps."
"Pat and I used to laugh like crazy," she adds. "A lot of times I'd be crying, too."
In the last year Allen Rische lived at Helena Street, though, humor became harder to find. He had become homicidal. Lois still remembers the day the front door slammed and she glimpsed Allen crossing the street carrying a big can of Varsol, a flammable liquid, and a matchbox.
"Where are you going?" she demanded.
Allen explained that he was on his way to torch their Mexican neighbors' house. There was no danger involved, he assured Lois; he had specifically chosen the hour so that the adults would be at work and the children at school.
"He felt it was an eyesore," Lois says, shaking her head.
Sternly, she told Allen the plan was impossible: he'd get arrested. It took some convincing, but Allen finally gave in and followed her home. But he didn't completely abandon his plan; Lois caught him slipping out with his Varsol four more times. Finally, she managed to confiscate it and began keeping him indoors under lock and key.
The most consistent danger, though, was inside the Helena Street house. There were days like the one when Lois walked into the kitchen and found Allen puttering by the refrigerator. On the counter in front of him stood an open carton of milk and an open container of the pesticide Malathion. "I didn't put that there. Pat must have done that," Allen said quickly.
"That was the last time," Lois says simply, "either Pat or I ate anything from open containers in our refrigerator."
Some elemental struggle seemed to be taking place in Allen's mind; at times he still showed flashes of his old, resplendent charm, and then the fascination with traps would take over. Pat Gross was haunted by the fear that one day she would show up to work and find Lois dead. "I think [Allen] got where he thought she was trying to control him," Pat says, recalling how Lois kept the house locked and confiscated Allen's guns, keys and liquor. "I think he was trying to kill her."
She didn't want to believe it, but Lois finally began to think Pat was right. Allen's doctors were pressuring her to place him in a nursing home, but Lois had made a vow: she would keep Allen at home as long as she could stand it. She'd assumed, though, that sorrow or exhaustion would be her worst obstacles. But in 1986, they took an unforeseen form: blades.
Lois doesn't know precisely when Allen began keeping knives in his night table. But one night, rummaging for something else, she opened the drawer and discovered a butcher knife. "God, that was unnerving," she writes. Every night after that, Lois checked the table. There was always a new weapon. They appeared, one at a time, in an apparent rotation: switchblades, bowie knives, an ice pick, screwdrivers and single edged razor blades. Where Allen stored this arsenal when it wasn't in the drawer, Lois had no idea. Though filled with anxiety, she still climbed into their big four-poster night after night, still took part in their old custom of sharing two chocolate truffles before sleep.
Then one night Lois pulled out the drawer and saw Allen's two Indonesian head hunting knives. Inside her, something froze. A kind of paralysis gripped her. After seven years of following Allen wherever his illness would take him, she literally couldn't go further; she couldn't climb into that bed. Pacing and shaking, Lois called her son, who took a look at her face and sped her to the emergency room. She'd had an acute anxiety attack. Somehow, that event connected for the first time to what the doctors had been telling Lois for years now. Allen was psychotic. He had to leave the Helena Street home.
Though she knew she had to place Allen in a nursing home, Lois brooded darkly about his request that she find some way to kill him when this time came. The evidence she had recoiled from for seven years now seemed to bear down on her all at once. Shortly after she decided to send Allen away, Lois heard Pat Gross call from the bathroom. She had opened two cardboard boxes that Allen had been quietly shifting about the second floor for a year. Inside one box lay surgeon's gloves; inside the other were two glass syringes and vials containing atropine, paregoric and epinephrine. Were these the tools he had planned to use on his retarded son Andy?
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In November 1987, Lois and her children drove Allen to a small nursing home. It offered her little relief. True, nurses now had to cope with the days Allen escaped and ran down the street, or the time he was caught with the nursing home's butcher knife and explained to the manager, "I might have to eliminate my children."
But although Allen had become mute, diabetic, and incontinent, Lois still thought she caught glimpses of his old self during her visits. And that was when she most wondered if she could fulfill the request he'd made when he had control of his faculties. Once, Lois went so far as to buy Allen a regular chocolate truffle, instead of the sugar-free truffle she ritually brought him so they could continue their old tradition of sharing candy. Maybe, she reasoned, the sugar would prompt a diabetic coma. But it was one step of her commitment she couldn't keep. She flushed the chocolates down the nursing home toilet. Allen died on his own on Bastille Day, 1992.
Today, much has changed outside the walls of the Helena Street house. A few years back, the Mexican family who played mariachi music moved away, and the city knocked down their house. Last month, Allen's old friend Henry Buck from the Indonesian oil field days supervised the demolition of Allen's junk building down the street. Now, Lois' house sits half surrounded by grassy fields.
Inside though, the three females who surrounded Allen during his lifetime have carried on. Iris, their black Lab, is back on her feet after a bout with heatstroke, a frail, inky wraith. Pat Gross still comes to Helena Street twice a week for cleaning. And Lois, immersed in memory, takes a creative writing course at Rice University and organizes manuscripts, addressed to potential agents, on her kitchen table. On one hand, she's ready to sell the house; on the other, she still finds it comfortable, with its warm colors, mementos and framed pictures of her and Allen. Picking one up, an acquaintance says to Lois, "It must be wonderful to be that much in love." Lois smiles, but says nothing. It may have almost cost her her life and her nerves, but as far as she's concerned, she kept the commitment that a great love requires.