Hank and Me

I had just left an Apache Reservation in Arizona after having spent a night there. I was hitching west and had been picked up by a guy named Jimmy. I never did learn his last name. He was a full-blooded Apache and he invited me to crash on his couch. I didn’t get much sleep because we stayed up most of the night and talked … well … he did most of the talking. He told me of the Denéé—The People—as he referred to the Apache. I learned of their history, their medicine, or religion, as we would call it. I even did some peyote with him and spoke with God. But that’s another story. Today, I want to tell you about Hank.

Jimmy was still asleep when I left. I didn’t have it in me to wake him and ask for a ride back to the highway. The sun was just over the horizon, it was still cool out even though it was the desert and it was summertime. I had been brought onto the reservation in the back of a pickup truck and had not followed our progress as we drove the back road onto the reservation; after all, I was facing backwards, looking at where we’d been, not where we were going.

As I started my walk, I saw the mountain I had been looking at as we drove onto the Apache homeland. It seemed as though it had taken us about half an hour to get from Highway 90 to Jimmy’s house. So, I reckoned that if I just kept the mountain in front of me and walked in a relatively straight line, it would not take me more than a few hours to make my way back to the highway. Boy, was I mistaken.

I started my trek across the desert full of vim and vigor. After all, I was nineteen years old; I was immortal, as are all young people. Of course, I had no water with me; ha … who needs water! Well, as it turned out, I needed water, and I needed a lot more than just water. I needed a sense of distance, and maybe even a sense of direction.

Allow me to explain. I set out at sunrise, headed towards a particular mountain, and after four hours treading the desert floor, that damn mountain seemed no closer than when I started. I had no watch with me, so I did not know the exact time, but judging by the sun, it must have been mid-morning—about ten o’clock—when I realized I had made a colossal mistake. When I first set out, I thought the walk to the highway would take two, maybe three hours at the most. But here I was four hours later with not a car—hell, with not even another human being—in sight. I was not even smart enough to follow the winding road we came in on. No, I had to play it cool, thinking I could shave off some time by cutting across the desert and walking in a straight line. Well, once I left the road, I never found it again. I pressed on, keeping the mountain in my sights.

Now, I’ll tell you folks something I didn’t know at the time. A mountain is a pretty big item. I was heading south, so I could wander a few miles either east or west and still have the same perspective of my destination, the mountain. And without a compass that is just what I did. I was zig-zagging all over the place, but I thought I was walking in a straight line.

By noon, or when the sun was directly overhead, the desert had started to heat up. And so did I. At that point, I would have killed for a glass of cool water. Maybe even with some ice in it. Those were my thoughts as I walked towards that goddamn mountain that kept retreating from me.

So as not to bore you all to tears, I will not tell you about that afternoon. Suffice it to say the afternoon consisted of walking and thoughts of water. The sun was on a slow descent to the other side of the world, and I had been walking for about ten hours when I saw it. There up ahead, unless it was a mirage, was a shack. I thanked God I saw it when I did. Complete darkness was less than an hour away, and I might have walked right past it in the night.

I was too tired to run, but I did pick up my pace a bit. When I got to within twenty yards of the place I saw my salvation—an old fashioned water pump, long handle and all. I ran right to the pump and without asking anyone’s permission, pumped that handle up and down like there was no tomorrow. And from my point of view, if I didn’t get some water in me, there would be no tomorrow, at least not for me. For all my effort, only a few dust swirls and a few grains of sand emanated from the spout. Then I remembered something, a pump has to be primed, and you need water to prime a pump. It’s kind of like—you need money to make money, and I needed water to get water. A catch-22.

Now that I was not going to have my fondest wish granted—a few measly drops of water—I turned my attention to the shack. I could tell right away that the place was abandoned; the fauna, or sagebrush, or whatever the hell grows in a desert, was three feet tall and blocking the door. The shack was about thirty feet wide, and after circumnavigating it, I discerned it was also thirty feet deep. There were no windows, so my ingress would have to be through the door.

As the night was fast approaching, I returned from my excursion of circling the shack and proceeded to the door, expecting to do battle with it to affect entry. However, to my everlasting surprise, the door flew open upon my touch. How inviting. With no windows, the only light entering said shack came from behind me and from the spaces between the boards that made up the walls of the shack. They were more like the walls of an old barn; there was about an eighth of an inch of open space between most of the boards. Some did join together, but they were of the minority. The wood was warped and old. This place has been here for a while.

The gloom within the shack made it hard to see what, if anything, was inside. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw a table in the middle of the room. I started for it, and then saw a single chair about five feet to the right. I had not noticed it sooner because it was in the shadows. The only light, as I’ve said, came mostly from the door. And that light was only as wide as the door, about three feet. It did not reach the corners or the far side of the room. Upon the back of the chair were draped some clothes.

For the time being, the chair and its accouterments held no interest for me. My attention was focused on the table. For upon the table stood a clear bottle about twelve inches high with a candle stuck into its mouth. It looked almost new, only an inch of its ten-inch length had been used. Maybe I would not have to spend the night in darkness after all.

I did not (and still do not) smoke. But I always carried a book of matches with me. One never knew when one might want to start a small fire and heat up a can of beans or a can of soup to get one through the night.

I went right for the candle, pulled out my trusty matches, and lit it. The light it gave off did not reach very far, maybe a couple feet past the table’s edge. By the way, the table was only about four foot square, and there was nothing else on it but the candle in the clear bottle.

Once I had a little light, I figured I could relax. I was still dying of thirst, but there was nothing I could do about that. I was thankful that the sun had retreated, giving me a respite from the heat for a few hours.

I pulled the chair over to the table and sat down. As I leaned back, I felt something bulky and hard. I stood and removed the clothing, which consisted of a “duster,” and two flannel shirts. You folks know what a duster is, don’t you? I am sure most of you have seen them in Westerns. But for those who are unfamiliar with the term, I will describe one. They were white, made of cotton, and looked something like a modern-day raincoat, except they were full length, falling to almost the ankle. And as the name implies, they were worn over one’s regular attire to keep the dust from soiling one’s clothes.

However, it was not the duster that caught my attention; it was the old-time six-shooter, lying in its holster, which hung from the back of the chair. Cool. Then I saw what was also hanging on the back of the chair, a canteen. I placed the candle on the table and with fear and trepidation, the fear and trepidation coming from the fact that the bloody thing might be empty, I lifted the strap attached to the canteen. I could tell by the weight that it was full. But even if there was water, chances of it being any good after sitting there in the desert for God knows how long were not good.

After returning the duster and shirts to where I had found them, I pulled the chair up to the table, sat down, and turned my attention once again to the canteen. I quickly pulled the cork from the opening and sniffed the contents. It didn’t smell bad, so I dribbled a few drops onto my tongue. It didn’t taste great, but I was thirsty enough to chance being sick, because at that point I was very dehydrated and would die in the desert the next day if I didn’t get some moisture in me.

Just as I was tilting my head back and raising the canteen to my mouth, a thought struck me. I did not have to chance anything. I could use half of the canteen’s contents to prime the pump, and if the well was dry, I would still have the other half for tonight and tomorrow. One way or the other, I was going to drink water that night even if it killed me. At least I would not die with my tongue hanging out, swollen from thirst.

I grabbed the candle, for it had gotten dark by then, and went out to the pump. I’m a city boy, there was only one other time I have had the pleasure of meeting a hand pump that pumped water up from a well. On that occasion, the pump needed priming and I watched my associate as he repeatedly primed and pumped, primed and pumped. So I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t screw things up by putting the water in the wrong place, like the spout, which is probably what I would have done if not for my previous experience with a pump.

I placed the candle on the ground so I could uncork the canteen; the candle gave just enough light so I could see what I was doing. With one hand, I poured water into the pump, and with the other, I took hold of the long handle at its end and started to pump. Up and down, faster and faster. The water seemed to be going in at an alarming rate, but I still poured and pumped. I had gone through more than half of that precious liquid and was about to halt my endeavor when the first few drops came out of the spout. And with every downward motion of the handle, more water came pouring out onto the ground until it was a raging torrent … a small raging torrent granted, but I had no complaints.

Then I could stand it no longer. I put my head under the spout, face up and mouth open, as I continued to pump. I have never tasted water so sweet in my entire life. And that would include any bottled water you may wish to proffer. After I had drunk my fill, I poured the contents of the canteen onto the ground and pumped a small quantity of water into it. I sloshed it around for a moment and emptied that also onto the ground. Then I filled the canteen, recorked it, and went back into the shack. Now that the water situation was taken care of, I could have gone for a light dinner, but hey … ya cain’t have everything.

I know most of you are asking: “Where the hell is Hank in all of this?”

Well, just hold on to your pantaloons. He’s on his way.

When I got back into the shack, I closed the door. As I’ve said, I’m a city boy. I didn’t want any desert critters coming in during the night, looking to start up a friendship with Yours Truly. In all likelihood, if any of the denizens of the desert did enter during the night, it would have been for the warmth of my body rather than my friendship. I allude to Crotalus Oreganu, better known as the western rattlesnake. I’ve heard that they like to snuggle up with human beings at night for our body heat. So the door would remain closed until morning.

Speaking of rattlesnakes, I said to myself, maybe a few are already squatting in this shack. I better take the candle to look around the perimeter, and into the far shadows to see if there are any ensconced hereabouts.

I saw nothing in the first three corners. But in the fourth, leaning against the wall, was a shovel and pickaxe, and on the floor lay a saddle and reins. There were no Crotalus Oreganu present, thank God, but there was a presence of another kind. Of course, I am speaking of Hank.

A bed stood against the back wall. I had not noticed it earlier because of my preoccupation with the canteen and the darkness of the room vis-à-vis the limited light of the candle. Upon the bed lay Hank. Now Hank wasn’t the most talkative hombre I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But that might have been because he was dead.

Holding the candle over the bed, I saw a human skeleton completely intact, probably because it was a bit mummified. The dry desert air will do that to a corpse. The skin was drawn tight and shrunken. For some reason, the eyeballs were missing.

The skull was still attached to the neck. The hair of the cadaver was jet black and full. If the hair had been all that I could see, I’d have sworn it belonged to a young man who was still among the living. The eye sockets, as I’ve said, were empty and dark. The missing eyeballs were a mystery I was in no hurry to solve. Years later when I mentioned it to someone, I was told that insects had probably eaten them.

Keeping the candle high over the bed, I saw that his hands were clasped together and resting on his belly. Hank—and I’ll tell you in a moment how I came to know that Hank was his name—was fully dressed.

Starting from the top and working down, he had a red bandana tied around his neck, and a faded cotton shirt (because of the light I could not tell what the original color was). He had on a pair of Levi’s, held up—well, not at the moment, but in life—by a belt with a square buckle that looked to be tarnished silver, with the name “Hank” engraved onto it. And on the belt was a knife in a sheath. His feet were covered by beige-colored socks. It seems his boots were off when he died. I don’t know if it’s more advantageous to die with your boots on or off, I’ll leave that up to the individual. I then moved the candle a little lower still, and perceived on the wooden floor, next to the bed, a pair of scuffed boots, black in color, one lying on its side. Oh yeah … I forgot to tell you. Everything—Hank, the table, the floor, the bed … I mean everything—in that shack was covered with a thick layer of dust.

There we were, Hank and me, staring at one another—me with eyes, him without. I needed to sit down after that.

I sat at the table, purposely not looking over to where Hank lay in repose. I was staring at the table, the top of it to be precise, when I noticed what looked like a small depression on the edge closest to me. It looked like someone had carved something into the wood. I took a deep breath and blew the dust from that area. It allowed me to read clearly what had been carved. The message was a simple one: “Hank Wiley 1889.”

I reckon ol’ Hank had been hangin’ out here waiting for me, or someone like me, to come along for eighty years. The year was 1969. However, more surprising than finding Hank, and almost as spiritually uplifting as getting the pump to work, was what I was about to stumble upon next.

When I first saw the shack, I was so tired from the day’s march that I envisioned being asleep almost before the sun went down. However, “The best laid plans …” Finding the canteen and then finding Hank kinda got my juices flowing if ya know what I mean. So here I am, sittin’ in a one-room, thirty-by-thirty-foot, broken-down shack in the middle of the Arizona desert with an eighty-year old skeleton and I’m wide-awake with nothing to do. So, like any good ex-Boy Scout, I went exploring.

I took the candle and retraced my steps back to the bed and Hank. I knelt down next to the bed and placed the candle so the bottle that held it rested against Hank’s neck and chin. I first felt the two pockets of his shirt. Nothing. I rummaged in the left front pocket of his jeans, then the right. Nothing. I picked up the candle from its resting place and placed it on the floor. I wanted to check his back pockets. I put a hand on his shoulder and a hand on his hip, and I turned Hank onto his side. It was easy, I could have done it one handed he was so light. I held him in that position while I felt in the Levi’s rear pockets. The left pocket held nothing, but in the right, I felt something that might have been a wallet. I extracted it and lowered Hank back onto the bed. As I did so, his head became detached from the rest of his body and rolled onto its side, facing me. Those empty eye sockets seemed to say, “Why have you defiled me?”

I did not want to touch that withered skin, so I left Hank’s head where it was.

I picked up the candle and returned to the table. It was not a wallet, but a piece of leather cut into a rectangle, about eight inches long and folded in half. Lying between the folds were an envelope, a piece of folded paper, and an old, faded photograph. It showed who I believed to be Hank (the man had the same thick, black mane) and a woman with hair as light as Hank’s was dark, standing at the tailgate of a wagon. And on the wagon was a banner of sorts. Because Hank and the woman were standing in front of it, there were only eight letters visible, two to the right of Hank (“JU”) and six to the left of the woman (“ARRIED”). The banner obviously read “JUST MARRIED.”

I looked at the picture for a long time. I thought of the unnamed woman and wondered whatever had become of her. She was quite pretty, and now as I write these words and I see once again that picture in my mind, I recall they were also very young, although, at the time, that did not enter into my thinking. Being nineteen and believing myself fully grown, I considered anyone else my age to also be an adult. But as I think of that picture today, at the tender age of sixty-seven, I know they were just kids; they couldn’t have been more than nineteen themselves.

I next removed the letter from its envelope. It had a return address of Boston, Massachusetts, and it was addressed to Mr. Henry Wiley c/o Forrester’s Hotel, Tucson, Arizona. Surprisingly, the paper was not brittle; it was old and brown, but did not fall apart in my hands. The handwriting was feminine and it was addressed to “My dearest husband.” I did not read the letter just then. I put it to one side and opened the piece of folded paper. It also was a letter, but written in a different hand. This handwriting was masculine, and it started with “Dearest Andy.”

Before I go on, I would like to digress, or jump ahead, whichever term is proper. All this happened forty-eight years ago, and for forty-eight years I’ve held on to those two letters, never knowing the reason why. Through many incarnations—business man, criminal, fugitive, junkie, and now writer—I have kept these letters. While my mother was alive, they were kept safely at her home, and then in a bank safety deposit box. They sit before me as I write these words and I now know the reason I’ve kept them all these years. It was so that one day I might share them with you.

I will present them in the order they were written. The first one is dated 9 July 1888, and it is from an Andrea Wiley to her dearest husband Hank Wiley. Without comment, this is the text of the letter.

My Dearest Husband,

I hope this letter finds you well and happy. I am sending it to the address you gave me in Tucson.

Do you know it has been twenty months since you went away? I write you every week. Some of my letters are returned with the notation that you are not known at that locale. I pray that this letter gets to you, my love. This November will mark the second year of your absence. I miss you so very much.

I am fine. I am making dresses for the ladies of society. My work is very well thought of, and I am kept quite busy. I do miss Kansas, but you were right, it is better that I stay with my mother while you are gone. Mother sends her love.

I know you are seldom where you can post a letter, but please try to write more often. Only three letters in all this time makes me miss you all the more.

Henry, I know we discussed this before you left, however, can you not come home now? Yes, our farm in Kansas was doing poorly, and we both worked very hard. But you never heard me complain because I had no complaints. I loved you, and I loved our farm. I know you wanted things better for me. You did not want me to work so hard, you wanted to buy me fancy clothes and nice things. Henry, I never wanted any of that, I only wanted you. And by going away you have taken away the only thing I truly desired.

Will you please come home? There is a reason I ask this of you now. I know how stubborn you can be. Until you find your fortune in gold you will stay away. You will think that you have failed me. Henry, the only time you have failed me is when you went away.

I have not wanted you to worry so I have refrained from telling you this before, but Henry, you have a son. He was born eight months after you left. His name is Henry Addison Wiley, Jr. and he looks just like you. His eyes are the same, and so is his smile. However, his hair is fair like mine. He needs a father. All the riches in all the world cannot take your place. Henry, you are not a failure, not with a son like Henry Jr. Please come home.

I am starting to drop tears onto the paper and they will make the ink run. So I will close for now. Henry, know that I love you with all my heart and that I need you with me; you are my treasure, you are my riches. Henry Jr. and I need you, please come home.

Your adoring wife,

Andrea

P.S. I miss being called Andy. You are the only person who has ever addressed me as such.

A.

The other letter was from Hank to his wife.

Dearest Andy,

I have just received your letter. I see by the date that you wrote it seven months ago. I don’t get down here that often, but my friend who works in the hotel kept the letter for me. The reason some of your letters have come back is if the owner of the hotel sees them before my friend, he sends them back. He and I do not get along.

So I have a boy? I cannot wait to see him and you too. I will be coming home shortly. I stumbled upon an abandoned shack and decided to use it as my headquarters. And what do you know, not two miles to the west I found my fortune. It is in a small outcropping of rock. It comes out of the ground and gradually slants upwards to about the height of three feet. The rock is about four feet thick, and right in the middle of it, running the whole length of the outcrop is a vein of pure gold nine inches thick. I shoveled the dirt away from where she comes out of the ground and the vein continues. It could go on for miles. But I have no plans to find out. I too miss you.

I broke my pickaxe trying to break the rock away. I came down to Tucson to buy another one and to buy some chisels and a sledgehammer. If I had not found what I was desperately searching for these last two years, I would be leaving for home today. I just need to go back for one or two weeks. I am not greedy. I will only mine as much as I can carry on my horse. With it we can go back to Kansas and buy us a really good farm and hire us some help. You will not have to work so hard.

I will mail this when I come back to Tucson so you will know that I am om my way. I want to write more, but will do so at night in the shack. Until then, kiss Henry Jr. for me.

Hello, I am back in the shack. I have been here ten days and have all the gold I can carry. Tomorrow I start for Tucson, then for home. I cannot wait to see you and Henry Jr. As you know I am not much of a letter writer, so I’ll save my words until I see you.

All my love,

Your Henry

 There was more to Hank’s letter, but it was written in a different hand, a hand that seemed to shake as it wrote. It is hard to read, but after all these years, I know what it says. The script is in one continuous sentence without punctuation. For ease of reading, I have added the correct punctuation and separated the words into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs. Here are the last words of Henry Addison Wiley, Sr.

Wouldn’t you know it? The night before leaving for home and you, I have to go and get myself bit by a rattlesnake. I lanced the punctures and sucked out the venom, but I don’t think it was enough, or I wasn’t fast enough. I am feeling light headed.

I was getting packed up so I could get an early start in the morning, and I reached under the bed to pull out the box I keep the gold in, and a rattler bit me. I made short work of him with the shovel. But that doesn’t help me. I was going to transfer the gold from the box to canvas bags for the trip to Tucson.

I don’t think I have much time so I better get down to what I want to say. You were right, Andy; we were rich back in Kansas. I am so sorry I did not know it at the time. I guess staring Death in the face changes a man’s way of looking at things.

I know of your love of animals. Before I got too weak I took the saddle and reins off my horse and set her free. You taught me of the dignity of animals.

You were my shining light. I must have been crazy to have ever left you, now I will never know my son, and he will never know his father. Tell him of his father’s folly so he will know what is important in this life. Tell him that is something his father learned far too late. I have botched things up good. I write these words in the hope that someday someone will find them and forward them on to you. I want you to know that my last thoughts were of you. In the end, I have failed you … I am so sorry. Not for me, but for leaving you and Henry Jr. to the mercy of this world while I am in another. If possible, I will look after you from my new world as I have never looked after you in this one. All my love …

 The last few words were almost impossible to decipher because the writing had deteriorated to such an extent that they ran together, but I think I got it right.

After reading the two letters, I sat in the chair and just watched the candle burn. My thoughts were of Andrea and Hank, of their life on the farm in Kansas. I thought of Hank Jr. and wondered what kind of man he grew up to be. I think … no, I am pretty damn sure that reading those two letters is the reason I have had a life-long aversion to acquiring material wealth.

By now it was getting light out, but I kept the candle burning because I wanted to see something. I went over to the bed and knelt down. I used the candle to see if there were any snakes under the bed. When I didn’t see any, I grabbed the box that was under there by one hand and pulled. It did not move. I put the candle down, and using both hands, I dragged the box from under the bed. It was very heavy. When I slid it far enough out so I could see the contents, I lifted the candle and held it over the box. What I saw were two canvas bags lying on top of something. With my right hand, I removed the bags to expose rocks that reflected the light of the candle as a prism would. The light bounced off those rocks and reflected on the wall like one of those disco ball things that hang over dance floors in night clubs.

The rocks, of course, were pure gold. I call them rocks because that is what they were. They were not puny, little nuggets of gold; no, they were substantial rocks of gold. I looked on in amazement for a few minutes before replacing the canvas bags and sliding the box back under the bed. I can see how some can easily come down with gold fever. I must admit, for one half a second, I too had the fever. But the memory of what I had just read was all I needed to cure me.

I got up off my knees and walked over to the table. I folded the two letters, putting Andrea’s back in its envelope. I put them both in the back pocket of my jeans. Leaving the piece of leather on the table, I picked up the picture of Hank and Andrea. I walked over and unclasped Hank’s hands, now I had no qualms about touching him. I placed the picture between his hands and laid his hands back on his belly. Then I gently put his head back into the position it was when I found him.

I stood over him for a moment or two before saying out loud: “Hank old buddy, if you don’t mind, I’m goin’ borrow your canteen. I am sorry for disturbing you last night, but you and your lovely wife have been very good company. The rocks that you gave up so much for are where you left them. I have no need for them any more than you have. I know Andrea and your son are with you now, and I am glad for all of you. Thank you for your hospitality, and I’ll be seein’ you someday up yonder.”

I left the shack, closing the door behind me. Three hours later, I could hear the highway’s whine. An hour after that, I was standing on the side of US Highway 90, hitchin’ my way to California.

 

 

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Six Feet

I come from the projects and I ain’t no pussy. In fact, I’d just as soon slit your throat as look at you.

They have me now. I was stupid enough to get caught after that gas station robbery. What’s the big fucking deal? We got only forty bucks. The cops came a-shootin’. My man Daryl took a bullet to the head.

Under the law, I was charged with murder in the second degree because someone died in the commission of a felony. How do you like that shit? The cops didn’t have to shoot. We were not armed … we carried toy guns. Of course, I was convicted. It was an all-white jury. What else can a black man expect in America?

Now I’m looking at twenty years to life. I sit in my cell and think of my girl. Her skin is chestnut brown in color. It’s the softest thing I’ve ever known … next to the love she has given me. Her smile used to send me to heaven. But I can’t see her smile no more. Her name is Gloria. She was my life. Now my life is trying not to get shivved in the food line.

She has written me, asking to visit. I will not allow it! I do not want her to see me in a cage. I wrote her back and told her to forget me. Get herself a man as unlike me as possible.

It really don’t matter no more. I will not live my life in a cage. Big Dog runs us blacks in this place. He is big, I’ll give him that. We are in the yard … the whites are on the far side … the spics opposite. And us niggers have the middle ground.

I rush at Big Dog looking like I’m holding a shiv. I’m not. One of his lieutenants cuts me down before I can get close.

As I lie on the green grass of the prison yard, looking up at a blue sky that I’ll never see again—my warm blood pooling beneath me—I think of my girl and of all the wrong choices I’ve made in my twenty-three years of life. But that’s cool … there are no more choices that have to be made, unless you want to ask me how deep I want to be buried.

Just for the record, it’s six feet.

 

Upon Your Couch

We sit upon your couch. Your head rests on my chest. I hold you to me. Your legs are drawn up under you and your left arm lies across my belly. The top of your head is just below my chin.

You have just gotten out of the bath. I love the smell of your body mixed with the aroma of the soap. You burrow deeper into me. I, in turn, pull you closer. We cannot get close enough to one another.

Twilight has descended. We sit in the semi darkness with only thoughts of each other going through our heads. There is no television, no radio; there is nothing to distract our thoughts. We do not speak … we have no need of words.

We are in love. We are so much in love.

Maryanne’s Weekend

What I’m posting today is an email that I sent to two of my friends about seven years ago. It was just an email, but it read like a short story. That spurred me on to do some more writing and before I knew it, here I am asking you to read about my misspent youth (again). By the way, every word is true (unfortunately). And please forgive my syntax, tense mistakes, and all the rest. It was my first effort and I’m too indolent to go in and change anything.

 

Dear Ben & Rick,

Mount St. Helens blew its top, the Liberty City riots, and this story all took place between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning of that fateful weekend of 1980. There must have been something in the air.

First, a little background: You guys remember my old office and the kind of neighborhood in which it was located. Well, I decided to relocate to a little bit better area. So we moved a mile or two east on 79th street. But we were east of Biscayne Boulevard and that made all the difference in the world. Or so I thought at the time.

Our new offices were in a strip shopping center. You know, about ten stores set up for retail businesses. However, this place was a little different; it had offices at each end to act as anchors. Our set up was two stories and had large, mirrored windows you could see out, but not in. They were massive, about twenty feet high and ran across the entire front. They come into the story later.

In this layout was a “dance studio” two doors down from me. It was owned by a beautiful Jamaican lady. There was not one wrong thing about her. Long hair, glowing brown skin, and curves most women would kill for at that age … she was twenty-five. Her name was Maryanne. And to top it off, she drove a brand new black Corvette. Maryanne got my attention.

I don’t remember how our relationship got started, but before long, I found myself going over there to hang out in the afternoons, if she had no customers. I must digress for a moment to disabuse you of the idea that this may have been a dance studio in any way, shape, or form. The only person who danced in that dance studio was Maryanne or one of the girls who worked for her. The customers, who were all male, sat in beanbag chairs and observed the girls dancing to music supplied by a boom box (at least that’s where I remember the music coming from). As to what these men did while a girl was dancing, I’ll leave to your vivid imaginations, but the girls were never touched.

There’s one other thing you need to know. Maryanne and I were not in love, it was pure sex. One weekend, we drove her car to Key West, and the first night there, at a bar, I saw a girl I was very interested in. So I suggested to Maryanne that she should see what she could dig up for herself, which she happily set about doing. I went home with the local talent and spent the night with her. The next morning, Maryanne and I met up and continued our weekend, no questions asked. That was the type of relationship we had. I tell you this because it is pertinent to the story.

Now the fun begins. It’s Friday afternoon, just before Mt. St. Helens and Liberty City blow up. I’m on my houseboat doing a little housework. (In those days I still did things of that sort.) Maryanne jumps on board—unannounced I might add—with her sheets flapping in the wind. (Sailor talk for very drunk.)

She wasn’t too bad, but you know what Quaaludes were like. She wants to have sex “Right now!” You guys, because you know me, might not believe this, but I said no. Probably the first and only time in my life I’ve done anything of that sort. I expected her to take it like a man, turn around, and walk out. But, boy was I wrong! She said, and I quote, “When I tell a man to fuck me, he better well do it, and fast!”

If she had given me a few sniffles instead, you guys wouldn’t be reading this sordid tale. But no, she gets butch and throws a left hook, which connects and pisses me off. She was a petite little thing, so I wrapped my arms around her, picked her up, and carried her to the dock where she was gently deposited and told to be a good little girl and go home.

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. But remember it’s only Friday afternoon and this drama didn’t have the National Guard throwing me to the ground and pressing five shotguns into the flesh of my back, with one resting on my head, telling me if I moved one muscle I’d have my “fuckin’ head blown off” until Sunday morning. Dear, dear Maryanne made it a most interesting weekend. I preferred our Key West get-a-way much better. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After she struts down the dock in an angry huff, I turn my attention to more serious matters—that evening’s debauchery. A few docks over lived a guy that reminded me of you, Rick. He had been in a serious motorcycle accident and had just got out of his body cast. His boat hosted a never-ending party that included the fabled Dancing Girls. Never had I seen such depravity, and I was right in the middle of it most nights. No … I cannot lie to you guys. I was in the middle of it every night. What happened on that boat is a story for another time. But going over there that night saved my life. By the way, Rick, it was the body cast and not the depravity that reminded me of you.

As I’m walking home the next morning from that boat of ill repute, a neighbor informs me that there were two guys hiding in some bushes the night before waiting for me to pass by. Some people in the marina noticed them after a while and called the police. They had guns and one of them shouted that he was going to kill that son-of a-bitch (me) for insulting his wife.

Maryanne, as it turned out, was married. Who knew? I learned later that she had gone home to her husband and gave him an edited version of what had happened, leaving out her wanting to go to bed part. I also learned that her husband’s original plan was to walk right to my houseboat, knock on the door, and shoot me point blank as I answered said door. That is why they were hiding in the shrubbery, and why I am still here to tell this tale of woe. I was not at home when he knocked on my door—I was two docks over enjoying the hospitality of my dear crippled and crazy friend.

So now I do the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I go to my debauched friend and tell him the story. He wants in on the fun, but he can only hobble around, so he offers me one of his many guns for self-protection. Being the genius that I am, I take a 9mm automatic. All of a sudden, I’m Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson.

It’s now Saturday, and that night I go night-clubbing with the 9mm in my back pocket, ready for action (what an A-Hole!). Well, I’m not attacked and make it home unscathed. About the time I got home, Mt. St. Helens was blowing her top, Liberty City was just getting a good burn going, and Maryanne was setting events in motion whose end result would culminate with me in the Dade County jail.

I get a few hours sleep and I am just getting up when my brother Mike bursts in and says, “What’s with your crazy girlfriend?” He goes on to tell me he had gone to the office that Sunday morn to get a little work out of the way. But as he exited his car, two guys assaulted him, hitting him over the head with the butt of a rifle, breaking the stock. The only thing that saved him was Maryanne yelling, “That’s not him, that’s not him!” He goes on to tell me that every window in our place has been smashed. You’ve heard the expression “He saw red,” well, I really did see red. It must have been the stress of the last couple of days, coupled with what happened to Mike (and my windows).

I reach for the gun as I’m telling Mike to come with me. We get into my car and off I go on a mission of vengeance and in a cloud of self-righteousness. We were there in less than five minutes and I slide my car sideways as though I’m Magnum PI. My plan is to use it as a shield. As the car comes to a rest, I pop out; draw the gun and start shooting straight into Maryanne’s studio (the bullet holes are still in the aluminum framing of the door to this day).

Well, ol’ Dirty Harry gets off two shots when my “friends” stick their heads out to see what’s going on. I take carful aim for the first guy, putting my thumb over the top of the gun. Up to that point, I had been firing one-handed. But now, I’m holding the gun with two hands like I see them do in the movies. I take careful aim at the motherfucker, pull the trigger, and almost severed my thumb (still got the scar), and the gun jams. No one told me automatics slide back with every shot. By the way, after my first shot, Mike said, “Are you nuts!” and walked (or ran) away. I was too busy to notice his means of staying out of jail that day.

So there I am. My thumb is dangling by a piece of bone, my gun won’t shoot anymore, and my targets are coming out with guns drawn. So what’s a hero to do in such a situation but run. I go around to the back of the building—there’s a house there—and I start knocking on the door screaming that they are going to kill me and please let me in. Amazingly, I’m let in. Two minutes later, the National Guard and about fifty local cops show up and drag me from the house. The riots are only blocks away, so I guess it wasn’t any bother on their part to run down the street and apprehend another crazy. Especially one that is armed and dangerous!

Well, as I’ve said before, I was thrown to the ground—the five shotguns on my back and a sixth on the back of my head, etc… etc…

Jail was interesting. I was the only white guy in there that day. They had arrested so many people because of the riot, we had twenty guys in a holding cell made for two or three at the most. And did I mention I was the only white guy? My fellow cellmates, at first, paid me no heed. They were too busy recounting to one another the exploits that landed them in our merry little conclave. But after about twenty minutes, things quieted down and one by one they turned their faces to me—Whitey. And believe me, there was no love lost in even one of those faces.

Presently, one young fellow spoke up and asked what I was in for. I looked at him, took a moment to answer to make sure I had everyone’s attention, and then said, “I just killed two people.” With that, they, as one living organism, shuffled away from me and I heard a voice in the back say: “I’ll take my TV rap” (he was in for looting). The rest of my cell mates wholeheartedly concurred. After that exchange, I was left to my own devices.

Ten hours later, I was allowed my phone call. I called a customer of mine, a bail bondsman. He told me I was getting him out of the sack with the sweetest little thing, but he came. Remember the streets were closed and there was a curfew. But somehow he got there and got me sprung. I then called good old Henry, who also got through the police lines—somehow.

As Henry and I made our way home that evening, Mt. St. Helens was calming down, the flames of Liberty City were now nothing more than embers; and my relationship with Maryanne had undergone a profound change. It had been quite a weekend.

The final outcome was this. The charges were pretty serious, so I took no chances and hired Roy Black (the guy who defended William Smith, the Kennedy who was charged with rape in Palm Beach, but this was years before that). I gave Roy $5000.00 cash (this was before money-laundering laws) for a retainer. After the preliminary when we knew which way the wind was blowing, we would then discuss his fee. So we went to court to ascertain my fate. When they called my case, the complainant’s name was called: Maryanne Jones. The judge looks up and says, “Is this the same Maryanne Jones that is in here every other week?” His clerk says it is indeed. To which the entire courtroom breaks out in laughter. It seems she was rather well known in judicial circles. Even the judge cracked a smile as he said, “Case dismissed.” That was $5000.00 well spent!

As a postscript, I subsequently spoke with Maryanne and she said she didn’t show up in court because she wasn’t a snitch. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wouldn’t have mattered if she had been there or not.

Somehow, after that weekend, the romance kind of went out of our relationship, although we remained friendly.

On a serious note: My hands shake every time I think of how close I came to taking a human life. I have not touched a gun since, nor will I if I live to be 100.

Your friend,

Andrew

 

 

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I Once Had a Girl

I once had a girl. She was from Norway, but we met in New York City at a jazz club on the West Side. My friend Lane had dragged me there; he told me that the sax player would really send me. (I know, that is 60s lingo). I didn’t want to go because I was broke and I was embarrassed that Lane always picked up the check when we were out. But he persisted in asking, so I went with him that warm August night. It was a night that changed my life forever.

Lane and I were from upstate New York, we had been friends in high school. We were both going to be writers and write the Great American Novel. And here we were, Lane wrote copy for an ad agency and I wrote short stories that no one would buy.

I was twenty years old, and had just dropped out of college. I wanted to be a writer and I did not think college was the way to go about it. I thought the only way to be a writer was to write. So I headed for the big city, found myself a roach-infested apartment and opened my laptop. I got lucky and sold my first short story to a weekly newspaper. It was a free paper, but they did print fiction. They paid me all of twenty-five dollars for it.

After that, I figured it would be only a matter of time before I had The New Yorker knocking at my door wanting me to write my genius fiction for them, and if not the New Yorker, then at least the Village Voice. Well, things did not work out that way. Six months later, I had not sold another story. The newspaper that had bought my first story was long out of business as I contemplated my future. I was nearing the end of my savings and something would have to break soon or I would have to get a job. Something did break and her name was Karina.

Unbeknownst to me, Lane and his girlfriend, whose name was Sally, set me up with a blind date. When we got to the club, I saw Sally sitting at a table with a blonde girl. I immediately grabbed Lane’s arm and halted his progress toward the table. “What’s the deal?” I asked in a low voice. Then I added, “If Sally is trying to set me up again, I’m leaving. You know I don’t have any money to date.”

With a phony and shocked look on his face, Lane said, “No, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that the poor girl is in town and doesn’t know anyone. Sally’s mother and her mother were friends. Sally’s looking out after her, that’s all. Don’t worry; she’s not your date. And she’s got plenty of money; she can pay her own way.”

With a sigh and a shake of my head, I said, “Lay on, Macduff.”

We seated ourselves at the table and I was introduced to the blonde. Sally started right off yakking away, but I heard nothing she said. I was looking into the eyes of the blonde. They were green, the color of emeralds—they were sad eyes. She was good-looking in a not glamorous sort of way. There was something about her. Something that made me want to put my arms around her and tell her everything would all right. That night I fell in love, head over heels. To me, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. But it wasn’t her looks that got me. It was her soul. She looked vulnerable and she had those sad eyes. I know that’s a cliché, but that is what it was, plain and simple. I was hooked. Her name was Karina.

We talked and ignored both the music, and Lane and Sally. When Sally saw where things were going, she nudged Lane and said they had to go, but that we should stay. As they left, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lane hand some money to our waitress and point our way. He had made sure that I wouldn’t be embarrassed for lack of funds.

The music was really too loud to carry on a conversation, so I suggested that we go somewhere more conducive to getting to know one another. I had no hope that she felt toward me as I felt toward her, but I just couldn’t let her go out of my life until I knew everything about her.

We settled in at a Starbucks and talked until the early morning. Her parents were both dead and had left her relatively well off. She was in the States because she owned a cabin in North Carolina, up in the mountains, and she had come here to sell it. At twenty-two, she was two years older than I was. But that was okay with me; I liked older women. I prattled on about my writing and she said that she would like to read some of my stuff someday. Someday? I wanted her to read my stories right then and there. But I held my tongue.

As I walked her to her hotel, she slipped her arm through mine and we walked on in silence. My feet never once touched the ground.

We said goodnight in the lobby of her hotel. She looked at me with those big sad eyes. “Please, may I see you tomorrow and read some of your stories?” Now normally, I would let anyone read my stuff at the drop of a hat, even if I had to drop the hat myself. But in this instance, I was reluctant to say yes. I didn’t want her to see how I lived. I mean, she was staying at the Plaza, for God’s sake! After a momentary hesitation, I told her I could bring my laptop over the next day and that I would be proud to have her read a few of my stories. We set a time and I left. We shook hands—we did not kiss goodnight.

Well, the short of it is, she was as smitten with me as I was with her. Why I don’t know. She postponed her trip south and stayed in the city. We saw each other every day. Sally must have told her about my financial situation, because Karina always insisted we go someplace that cost no money. We hit the art galleries and the museums, among other venues. Central Park was our favorite. As we walked through the park, the sunshine would ripple in her yellow hair like waves upon a sparkling ocean. At the end of two weeks, we both knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.

Karina liked my writing and told me I should be writing a full-length novel. Then, when that sold, I could put out a book of my short stories. No wonder that I loved her, she believed in me, more so than I believed in myself.

One day, a Sunday, as we lay on a blanket in the park holding hands (we still had not made love), Karina asserted herself. She told me in no uncertain terms that she was taking me to her cabin In North Carolina. She would cook and clean for me while I wrote my novel, and then when it sold, I could take care of her.

I told her that I would have to think on it. She stood and took my hand. I raised myself from the ground, and forgetting the blanket, we went back to the Plaza. We made long, slow love all that afternoon. And then again that night.

We hit the mountains of North Carolina as the leaves were changing. It was the perfect metaphor. Our lives were changing; we were melding into one entity.

As the snows came, I wrote and Karina loved me. I didn’t want to write. I wanted to make love to my girl, but she made sure I stayed at the computer at least six hours a day. The rest of the time I devoted to loving her.

As the snows melted and the leaves slowly returned to the trees, my book took form. Karina would read what I had written each day. She would correct my mistakes and give me input as to the characters and the plot. As I sat there in the evenings, seeing the firelight reflected in her eyes while she read my daily output, I fell in love with her all over again.

When spring was in full bloom, the book also bloomed. I had completed my version of the Great American Novel. I emailed my query letters to agents. Within a month, I had a signed contract. When summer came around, the book had been sold to a publisher and I had money in the bank. Now I could take care of my Karina. But it was not to be.

It was August once again, almost to the day that Karina and I first met. We were leaving the next day for New York. My agent had set up a meeting with my new editor. There was still work to be done. Writing the story is one thing, getting it out there is another. However, before leaving I wanted to buy something for my love. I went into town and bought Karina a ring. Nothing fancy, it was a simple band of gold. I was going to ask her to be my wife. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin, get down on one knee, and tell her of my love for her.

I saw the smoke long before I turned into the drive to our cabin. Then I saw the flames. I pulled the car to a stop, rushed to the cabin, and heard her screams. Those screams will never leave me.

“KARINA!” I shouted as I rushed the door.

When I pushed open the door, a blast of heat and flames knocked me on my ass. I got up; nothing short of hell was going to keep me out of that cabin. And that is exactly what kept me out . . . hell. I could not penetrate the flames. On my third attempt, the burns and resultant pain caused me to pass out. When I awoke, I was in a hospital’s burn ward.

Karina was gone and I was alone.

I sold the rights to my book to my agent. I couldn’t edit and work on it with anyone else now that Karina was gone. I took the money and bought a sailboat down in Miami. I had Karina painted on the sides in large letters the color of her eyes. I now sail the Caribbean, going from island to island, looking for nothing and finding nothing. I’m certainly not finding relief for the pain in my heart.

I once had a girl. Karina was her name.

 

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The Case of the Purloined Goldfish

This little tale is a sequel to yesterday’s story, How I Became a Detective. I hate to leave loose ends lying about, or whatever the metaphor is.

 

goldfish

 

The Case of the Purloined Goldfish

The call came in at 2:35 on a Friday afternoon. My partner and I were jawboning about the up and coming weekend. My partner, Carl Peterson, has been a detective for forty years or so, both as a cop and private. Me, my name’s Herbert Walker. I’ve been a PI for a little over two years.

So there we were, in our office above the hardware store, talking about our big weekend plans. Carl said he was going to work over the weekend, going through the internet to try to run down a skip-trace we were working on. That wasn’t unusual, him working weekends and nights. He told me that, at his age, he has forgone the pleasures of the flesh. Or to put it in his words, “I’ve given up on women. The ones that would be interested in me are either buried or comatose.” Carl is seventy-two years old.

He asked me what hot spot I was going to hit that night. Of course, he was kidding me. Carl knew I was shy around women. I’m thirty-five years old, and though I’ve had a few dates now and again, I just don’t know how to talk to women. I don’t think I’m too bad looking. Many times I’m complimented on my blue eyes or my smile, but when that happens, I blush and murmur a weak “thank you” and then scurry home to lose myself in a good detective yarn.

When the phone rang, Carl grabbed it. His end of the conversation went something like this: “Private Investigations, Inc. (the name of our agency). May I help you? Yes … yes … no … you want my partner. Please hold a minute.”

Putting his hand over the mouthpiece, he thrust the receiver in my direction and said, “It’s some woman, she wants the genius that solved the McNally murder.” He was referring to our first case in which I got lucky and caught the murderer of our client.

Taking the phone I said, “Herbert Walker speaking. May I help you?”

“You most certainly may if you are the young man I saw on television.” To my never-ending chagrin, I had allowed myself to be interviewed by the local television stations once the case broke wide open. I’m still embarrassed about that, but Carl told me it was good for business.

When I assured the caller that I indeed was the person she was seeking, she asked if I could come and see her right away. “I’ve got a mystery on my hands and I’m sure you are the only one to solve it.”

I asked her name. “I’m Mrs. Gerald Lawless.”

I asked what her problem was. “I don’t want to go into it over the phone. You never know who might be listening in.” Obviously, I wasn’t the only one reading too many detective novels.

Seeing as how things were slow and I was thinking of cutting out early, I wrote down the woman’s address and told her I was on my way. When I hung up and showed the address to Carl, he said, “That’s a ritzy neighborhood. Don’t give her no discount. She can afford to pay the full ticket. Now get out of here, I’ve got work to do.”

That’s Carl, always looking out for our business. If it was up to me, we’d be charging fifty dollars a day, plus expenses. If it was good enough for Philip Marlowe, then it ought to be good enough for Walker and Peterson.

As I drove east toward Mrs. Lawless’ house, I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if I had a date that night. I love to read, detective stories in particular. But, on a Friday or Saturday night, it can get a bit lonesome thinking of the revelry going on that I’m not a part of. It was not so much the festivities; it was that I would like to sit and talk with a pretty woman. Tell her of my hopes and dreams and hear of hers. However, it didn’t seem to be in the cards for me in this life. So, as I drove, I mentally shrugged and wondered what Mrs. Lawless had in store for me. As it played out, she turned my life upside down—indirectly, that is.

When I arrived, I could not see the house for the tropical foliage, and my ingress was hindered by a large wrought-iron gate blocking the driveway. Looking to my left, I perceived what looked like a call box, decided it was, and pushed the button affixed thereon. After a minute, I was rewarded with a response. “Yes, what is it?” Not a warm response, but a response nevertheless.

“My name is Herbert Walker. Mrs. Lawless is expecting me.”

There were no further words from the box, but the gates swung inward and I proceeded forward. The driveway wasn’t long, and after about a hundred feet, it curved to the left where the house came into view. It was a modest affair, considering the neighborhood. There was a massive Cadillac SUV and an older Toyota parked in front. I pulled my heap next to the Toyota so it wouldn’t look so out of place.

As I made my way to the front door, I passed a small cement pond filled with goldfish. I dallied for a moment. I hadn’t seen a goldfish pond since I was a kid, and it evoked pleasant reminiscences of a bygone youth. Leaving my memories at the pond, I continued on. Before I could reach my objective, the front door opened and there stood an angel—an angel with a scowl on her face. She wasn’t beautiful in the modern super-model sort of way. But she was beautiful in the old-fashioned Norman Rockwell sort of way, which to me is the better of the two.

She had fair hair, green eyes, and if she would smile, I’m sure that too would be beautiful. From the bottom up, she wore high heels, tight-fitting slacks (if that is what they still call women’s pants) and a blouse (ditto). She was a couple of inches shorter than me, and I judged her to be about thirty-years old. I was so enthralled—no, enchanted would be a better word to describe my state of mind—that I stood there like the idiot that I am, with my mouth hanging open.

That’s about the time my angel said, “If you’re coming in. then come in. We’re letting the air-conditioning out.”

Without an avenue of retreat, I shut my mouth and entered the house, where once again I balled things up. “Mrs. Lawless, I’m Herbert Walker.”

“I know who you are. You announced yourself at the gate. And I’m not Mrs. Lawless. Just follow me, please, and I’ll take you to her.”

Without waiting for a reply, she turned and started down a hallway, with me in fast pursuit as her heels clicked on the Italian tiles. After a few steps, she abruptly came to a halt, so abruptly that I collided with her. Before I could manage an inept apology, she turned to me and in a soft, sweet tone said, “I’m sorry. I’m having a horrible day. Something has happened and through no fault of my own, it may cost me my job. So please forgive my actions up till now.” She stuck out her dainty little hand and asked, “Friends?”

Of course, we’re friends! Friends for life, is what I thought. However, I said only, “Sure,” as I took her hand and shook it. Though what I really wanted to do was pull her to me and kiss her. She had that kind of effect on me.

Before we could resume our trek, we were accosted by a young boy holding a model B-29 bomber. Making engine noises, he ran toward us; at the last possible moment before running into us, he did a pivot any NFL halfback would have been proud of and returned from whence he came. My guide informed me, “That’s Mrs. Lawless’ grandson. Sometimes he can be a handful.”

We finally made it to a room, a room that in my mind I called “The White Room.” The carpet was white without a stain upon it. There was a long sofa, white of course. And three chairs were situated in front of said sofa. Anyone want to bet on the color of the chairs? Between the sofa and the chairs was a coffee table that looked as though it was made of ebony. It was the only thing of color in the entire room. Opposite the sofa was a fireplace of white brick. It didn’t look like there had been any recent fires because there was no discernible soot. I thought: No respectable soot would dare show itself in this white, pristine room.

My escort told me to sit and make myself comfortable and that Mrs. Lawless would be with me presently. Before she left, I wanted to ask her name. But, as usual, I became tongue-tied and all I could manage was an ineffective “Thank you.”

A short while later, an elderly woman came in and announced, “I’m Mrs. Lawless, but my friends call me Jessie. Now sit down, young man. (I had stood upon her arrival.) I’m a tough old broad, no need for any of that stuff with me.” I liked her right away.

As we settled ourselves, she asked if I would like some tea. Tea? Where were we? In some Agatha Christie story? I declined the tea and asked her what her difficulty was.

“Well, it’s a complicated situation. You see, if my suspicions are correct, it can only mean that someone I brought to my bosom has betrayed me.”

Thinking this might be a case I could sink my teeth into, I asked her to continue.

“It’s just this … Mr. … I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten your name?”

“It’s Walker, ma’am, Herbert Walker.”

“Yes, of course you are. Well, Mr. Walker, someone has stolen my goldfish!”

I liked the old girl, but really, perhaps she had entered her dotage, although I didn’t say as much. I merely said, “I saw the goldfish as I came in.”

For a moment she looked at me as though I might have been from outer space or had two heads. Then a light shone in her countenance and she said, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about. No, the goldfish of which I allude is a gold goldfish. I mean it is made of solid gold and was given to me by my husband on our fifth wedding anniversary. It’s not terribly valuable, maybe a few thousand dollars or so. But its sentimental value to me is priceless.”

I think she sensed that I needed more of an explanation, so she hurriedly added, “I’ll start at the beginning.”

“Yes, please do.”

“Well, first of all, I’m a widow. Jerry, that’s my husband, passed away ten years ago this June.”

I was hoping that I wasn’t going to have to endure a recitation covering the last ten years. I was spared; she got right to the point.

“I kept the goldfish here on the mantel. And when I went to bed last night, it was the last thing I looked at. And this morning when I came into this room it was gone! No one has been in this house except my son and his wife—they’re visiting for a few days—and my assistant. You’ve met her. Her name is Rebecca Myers. I asked her about the goldfish and she says she is as mystified as I am.”

At that juncture, I felt that I had to interject a thought or two. “I saw a small child a while ago.”

“That was my grandchild. His name is Charles; he and his sister are here with their parents. But they cannot reach the mantel. It either has to be my daughter-in-law, her name is Christy, or Rebecca. I know my son would not have taken it. I hate to think it might be Christy, but I have never warmed up to her.”

A question popped into my mind and I gave it voice. “Where are your son and daughter-in-law now?”

“They’re out for the day with Susan, that’s my granddaughter.”

“So you haven’t talked with your daughter-in-law yet about the goldfish?”

“No, not yet.”

It was becoming obvious that this wasn’t a case for a private dick. It was either a police matter or a family matter. I stood to leave, saying, “Why not call your son and ask if he knows where the goldfish is? Perhaps he took it to show someone. I assume they left before you awakened.”

She fidgeted in her seat and said, “I don’t need a detective to tell me that. I’ve already spoken with him and he knows nothing about it. And I do not want the police involved. Though I would like the goldfish back, I’d rather drop the whole thing if you can’t determine who took it. Of course, I’ll have to let Rebecca go. I just can’t take a chance if it was her.”

That last statement put me back in my seat. I couldn’t walk out and let that angel lose her job without at least giving it a shot. So I said, “I’ll speak with Miss Myers, it is Miss, isn’t it?”

“She is not married.”

With relief at that bit of news, I exhaled the breath I did not know I was holding. I continued, “I’ll speak with her and your daughter-in-law and see if I can fathom anything. Does Miss Myers live here?”

“No, she arrives in the morning before I arise and prepares my tea and toast; she has a key to the house.”

“What time do you expect your son and Christy back?”

“Not until dinner time, about seven or so.”

“I’ll speak with Miss Myers now and return at seven. Perhaps you’ll be so kind as to invite me to dinner. I think I can discern more at the dinner table by observing your daughter-in-law as we speak of the missing goldfish, which I assume, will be the main topic of discussion.” I then asked where I might find Miss Myers. I was told she was probably in the study and was given the appropriate directions on how to find it. I left Mrs. Lawless sitting in The White Room looking much like the lady of the manor that she was.

I didn’t think for a minute that Rebecca Myers had taken the dingus, but I had to go through the motions. And besides, I wanted to stand next to her and smell her perfume and look into those green eyes once again.

She was in the study, seated at a desk and going through some papers when I entered. I stood waiting for her to acknowledge my presence. Finally, she turned to me and said, “May I help you with something?”

Feeling awkward, I stammered, “I presume that you know why I was called here. It was to find the dingus, I mean the goldfish. Mrs. Lawless has, in her mind, narrowed it down to you and her daughter-in-law as the likely suspects.”

I had more to say, but interrupted me with, “Do you want to search me? Is that why you are here?

“I very much want to lay my hands on you, but not in that fashion.”

Where in hell did that come from? Did I say that? And if I did, did I say it out loud? And if I did say it out loud can I expect a slap across the face at any moment now? Those were my thoughts as I readied myself for the onslaught, be it physical or verbal.

However, nothing happened. Well, something happened, but not what I expected. She blushed and smiled at the same time. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I threw caution to the wind (for once in my life) and said, “Oh the hell with it. I just wanted to see you before I left. I know you didn’t take the damn fish and that your job is on the line, so I’m coming back later to see what the daughter-in-law has to say for herself.”

At that point, I had to take a breath. I had spit all those words out like I was firing a machine gun. The words ran so close together, I doubt if she understood half of what I said.

Before I could think of any more inane things to say, she walked over and kissed me on the cheek, saying, “You’re cute.” Then she left the room, leaving me standing there like the mope that I am. I decided it was a good time to take my leave. I made it to the front door without being accosted by precocious children, grand dames, or beautiful assistants.

Once outside, I saw Charles, the grandson, playing with a plastic boat at the goldfish pond. He must have resigned his commission in the Air Force and enlisted in the Navy. Having once been a boy myself, I dawdled to watch as he displayed his maritime skills complete with suitable engine noises.

As I watched him, my eye caught the glint of a small object lying on the bottom of the pond. My attention was drawn to it because of the sunlight reflecting off of it. Removing my coat and rolling up my sleeve, I thrust my hand into the warm, algae-laced water. My fingers grasped what I was after, and lo and behold. I held the dingus in my hand!

Of course, my actions did not go unnoticed by the naval commander, and he asked, “What are you doing with Fred?”

“Fred?” I rejoined. “What do you know of him?”

The little monster proceeded to tell me. “Fred is my friend. He was lonely all by himself and besides, goldfish need water to live.”

“So you put him in the pond?”

He didn’t answer right away; he was intent on discharging depth charges or causing some other sort of mayhem. Eventually, he deigned to answer my query.

“I knew he needed water, so I put him in here this morning while I was waiting for everyone to wake up.” He added, “I don’t think Fred likes being out of the water. Maybe you should put him back in now.”

“Just one more question. How did you get him off the mantel?”

“I dragged a chair over and stood on it.”

Out of the mouths of babes! And I call myself a detective. Assuring Captain Nemo that I would take good care of Fred, I headed back toward the house.

My persistent knocking was finally answered by Rebecca. Keeping Fred firmly enclosed in my hand, I walked past her and went straight to The White Room, leaving her to close the door and follow.

Mrs. Lawless was still there and I presented Fred to her with these words, “Compliments of Private Investigations, Inc. I suggest you ask your grandson how it found its way off the mantel.” As Rebecca entered the room, she heard me say, “The only fee I ask is that you apologize to Miss Myers for having thought her capable of such an act.”

Without waiting for a reply, I turned and left the room, avoiding Rebecca’s eyes. I mean what was the use? She’s beautiful, I’m a klutz, and she wouldn’t want to have anything to do with someone like me.

I made it as far as my car before she caught up with me. “Just a minute, mister. Do think you can pull a girl’s bacon out of the fire and then run away without so much as a by-your-leave?”

I started to say that I was sorry, but she cut me off. “I want you to come to my place tonight so that I can make you dinner. I’m a very good cook by the way. Here.” She handed me a piece of paper that looked as though it had been torn in haste from a notebook. Upon it was an address and phone number. Continuing, she said, “I’ll expect you at eight.”

Being my old idiotic self, I told her that was not necessary and that I was happy to have helped out.

That’s when she raised to her full height and said, “I’m asking you for a date. What happened in there has no bearing on the matter. I had a feeling that if I waited for you to get around to asking, I’d be an old maid. Now don’t disappoint me. I’ll see you at eight.” She turned and quickly reentered the house.

I, of course, stood there with a stupid look on my face, but slowly the dim-witted expression changed into a broad—a very broad—grin. I almost jumped into the air and clicked my heels together.

When I got back to the office, Carl asked me if I had solved the case. He was being facetious. But when I informed him that I had indeed solved it, his manner became business-like and he asked me what fee I had charged. I told him that, for the agency, nothing. But that I personally made a score. He started to say something, but I forestalled further comment by saying, “Carl, old buddy, I think it’s about time I got married.”

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Misunderstood

In honor of Saint Valentine’s Day, I’m posting a touching love story. Enjoy!

massey

Misunderstood

 “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

If you will allow me, I’d like to give you my side of the story. I know the papers and television have painted me as a monster, something that should be exterminated at the soonest possible moment. But I did what I did for a very good reason.

It all started on that cold day in February two years ago when she walked into my shop. At the time, I was a woodworker—a cabinet maker. She was not beautiful, but then again she was not unpleasant to the eye. I can still remember her first words. “Are you Abner Crochet?” Seeing as how that was my name, I answered in the affirmative. My time is limited; they will be coming for me shortly, so I’ll have to leave much out of my narrative, but the salient facts are as follows.

She said she wanted me to construct an old-fashioned type wardrobe of maple with cypress shelving. But I ask you, if that is all she wanted, why in heaven’s name did she come on to me in such a manner?

What manner, you may ask. Well, I will tell you.

At our third meeting, while I was showing her the plans I had drawn up for her commission, she placed her hand on mine. Yes, I know that does not seem like much, but you did not see the look in her eyes. After that day, the relationship grew. She would come by almost daily to check on the progress of the piece. At least that is what she claimed, but I knew different … she was falling in love with me as I had fallen in love with her.

Then the day came when my work was done. She was thrilled with the finished product, and over and over again she told me that I was an artist and my work should be in museums. That was pleasant to hear, not because she liked my work, but because I knew that she loved me.

I expected to see her the next day when the piece was to be picked up. However, I was disappointed. She sent two workmen in her stead. So I called her on the phone, and can you believe it? She pretended that she had not the slightest feelings for me. She said, “I assume you’re calling about the bill. Well, I’ve already sent off the check with a little extra because my fiancé loves it so much. It is to be my wedding present to him.”

What was she talking about? She had not once mentioned a fiancé! She touched my hand, for God’s sake!  I could only mutter a weak thank you, and hung up the phone. I had to think.

Admittedly, I have not been around women very much. Until she came into my life, I don’t think I’d even touched a woman. But I knew she felt towards me as I felt towards her. She placed her hand on top of mine!

“Yes … yes …”

I’m being told I must gather my belongings for the move. But before I do so, I must explain myself. I’ll be brief.

Knowing she loved me as I loved her meant only one thing. She was being forced to marry against her will. I had decided that I would have to intercede on her behalf. That is why I broke into the apartment. I was only going to reason with the man. Tell him of our true, great love.

Then my world, all my hopes and dreams, crumbled before me. When I flicked on the bedroom light … when I flicked on the bedroom light … even now it is hard for me to put into words what I saw. When I flicked on the bedroom light, there he was, and there she was! They were lying in the same bed! And neither one of them were decent.

I know I said I went there only to convince my rival that he should bow out of true love’s way, but that does not explain why I brought along the hunting knife. Was I subconsciously planning to do harm to the man? I do not know.

However, it is all academic. When I saw the two—my love and that vile man—intertwined upon the bed, I lost all reason. I did what I had to do to save my love. He just got in the way. I knew she loved me, but now that she was sullied by another, she could never have me. So, the most humane thing I could do was to end her life. I did not want her living a life of regret because she had lost my love. And him? As I said, he got in the way. He fought, and he fought hard, to protect my love; however, it did give me great joy to dispatch him to another world.

So you see, my friends, what I did, I did out of love.

They are moving me to the death-watch cell now. Soon I will have my head shaved and the gel placed thereon, for good conductivity you know. Then I’ll get my allotted 50,000 volts. I am happy as I write these words. My true love and I shall be together in a very short while.

I’m just a soul whose intentions were good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

Yellow Hair