by Colin Deerwood
I waited for the loudspeaker to announce the boarding of my cross country bus from a booth with a view of the door in the Happy Trails Bar and Grill next to the terminal. There were a few salesmen at the bar with their hats on the back of their heads washing away the taste of exaggerated claims with another shot, not looking forward to telling more lies to the missus behind the white picket fence in the suburbs. I’d spotted a few eyes I wanted to dodge but so far the mug in the flashy suit only had them for the young gal who’d just got off a bus in a summer dress, her best Sunday hat, and a suitcase tied with a length of rope. The beat cop was too busy paying attention to the giggly woman at the Traveler’s Aid desk. I nursed my beer and shoveled in another spoonful of chili. It was my second bowl. I was famished.
After I’d left my disappointment in the coalbin, I made my way to the railyard by the Serbian Social Club. There were a couple of squad cars parked out front and the guard at the front door was now a boy in blue. There was no chance that I was going to get close or even inside the building. Becky was gone, I had to face up to that. Kovic’s mob probably dumped the body somewhere it wouldn’t be found any time soon. If anyone looked like a sad sack that day, it was me. I had no choice but to pick up my gear at Alice’s and head out of town.
Alice was all smiles when I got to her studio but I didn’t like the looks she gave me once I told her what had happened to Rebecca. She’d wanted to tell me that someone was interested in buying some of her art but I kind of rained on her parade with my news. I couldn’t tell if she was mad at me or that the news hurt her so bad that it made it look that way. Either way it was a crushing realization. I was responsible. Rebecca had been swept up in my blind quest for revenge. I should have ditched her and gone after Kovic on my own. Now I’d lost her for good. I needed a drink.
But Alice wasn’t having any of it. She walked me through the ordeal she had suffered when Ted died. She had gone on a binge she reminded me. And I remembered finding her a few times at Sid’s or Sammy’s Shamrock, and helping her home and to bed, limp as a washcloth wrung out of all her tears. She still felt the pain of the loss, and bitterness, and disappointment with herself that she hadn’t done more or noticed sooner. Most of all she was lonely. Drink wasn’t going to bring Rebecca back and I’d only end up doing something stupid. She was right, and I listened.
The plan that had come to me while I was on Annie’s tug involved taking the bus upstate to the one horse town of Ridley up in the Three Lakes district where my granny had lived. She’d passed away but I still had cousins up there I hadn’t been in touch with in more than a decade. Back then, when the market crashed, folks lost everything, businesses closed and homes were foreclosed on, and the streets crowded with homeless families looking for a handout. The only people with money were crooks and politicians although I don’t know how anyone could tell the difference. Granny had been smart, her mortgage paid off, managed to keep up with taxes so she still had a couple of acres of apple trees and a ten room two story house to which the less fortunate of her children and grandchildren flocked when the money ran out along with the jobs. I’d heard that it had become a zoo, and fortunately for the old gal she didn’t last much past the repeal because then it became a drunken zoo. I aimed to become part of that menagerie.
Alice promised to ask around for a legit buyer for Ted’s art piece. I was going to need the moola once my safety c-note ran out. And she gave me a goodbye present along with a heartfelt hug and squeeze, one of her mementos of her dead lover, Ted’s fedora.
“It suits you well,” she said as I flicked the brim. “Too bad it doesn’t hide your shiners. You look like you’re wearing a black mask.”
I’d waited till the last person in line had boarded and the driver was about to close the door. The man behind the wheel gave me the ‘there’s one in every crowd’ squint as I made my way to the back and humped my satchel onto the seat next to me. I’d given a quick eyeball of the occupied seats and what I was seeing was a smattering of overdressed travelers, men and women looking out the window, some with children in their laps. Some were obviously vacationers heading up to Big Lake, one of the three lakes and most popular summer resort. And some, by their defeated expressions, were going back where they came from with only the clothes on their backs. Maybe I fit into that last category, but behind the dark glasses I had picked up at the terminal newsstand and my hat tipped back once the bus turned onto the road leading to the outskirts, I didn’t care. I had a half pint of Old Hickory and a pack of Lucky Strikes to while away the three hours it would take to get to where I was going.
Ridley was named after Colonel P.J. Ridley who owned the local livery and dry goods store and was given the rank of colonel for providing horses to the Army for its war in the South. It was a one horse town on the way up to the lakes and the resorts.
There were three lakes, Big Lake, Middle Lake, and Little Lake. The resorts were mainly clustered around Big Lake, and since the repeal they’d added a night club or two. Middle Lake was a not quite as big overgrown snake infested swamp and provided mosquitoes for the entire area. Little Lake lived up to its name, but it was clean and deep and cold. I know because granny kept a cabin up there where I’d spent a few summers as a kid. It didn’t have a big sandy beach like Big Lake and was bordered mainly by big rough outsized boulders and it had a mosquito population almost as dense as Middle Lake which didn’t make it as popular and inviting.
I’d gone through about half of the Old Hickory and smoked up the rear of the bus with a cigarette haze by the time the bus rolled into Ridley. I found my feet once I stumbled off the bus and watched it kick up the road dust on its way out of town. Ridley didn’t seem to have changed much since they last time I came through. They’d added a gas pump in front of the livery barn and a sign on the side that said mechanic. There was a streetlight I didn’t remember from before out front. Granny’s house was down the elm shaded road running behind it.
The sun was just settling on the horizon and it was still light enough that I found the old house without any problem. I was surprised by how run down it looked. The front yard was overgrown with weeds, the rusty metal gate squeaked, and one window on the upper story looked like it had a black eye or there’d been a fire. There was a familiar scent in the warm night air, rotting fermenting apples.
I glanced around the littered porch. It wasn’t the cozy welcoming place it had once been. I gave the peeling green door a rap with my knuckles and looked over both shoulders like I didn’t want to be caught by surprise. I waited before I gave the door another paradiddle. I heard a sound on the other side and then the handle turned and the door opened a crack. A dark eyeball stared at me.
“Go round the back,” it said and slammed the door.
I made my way through the overgrown path alongside the house to the covered porch that led to the kitchen. It could have used a coat of paint and the screen door was hanging crooked off a hinge.
Inside, the door to the kitchen was open and I stepped to it. The dark woman at the stove looked up with a frown. “Ain’t got no work. I can give you something to eat but you be on your way when you finish.”
I nodded and took off my hat. “Thank you, but you see my this is my granny’s house and I’m. . .”
The cook reached for the knife on the cutting board just as the door from the dining room opened and Ruth stepped through. She was a cousin, distant, about five years older than me. Tall, she’d kept the square shoulders, always kind of a tomboy and bully, beating on the younger kids, me included. Her hair looked like it belonged on Ritzy Ritz as did the big black spidery lash eyes. Her nose was cute as a button. The only thing that spoiled it was that she had a jaw like Joe Palooka. And maybe a little hint of a moustache.
“Sissy said that there’s a blindman begging at the door.” She had her fists to the hips of her polka dot house dress looking at me.
“Even if I was blind I could still hear you, Ruthie. Being blind ain’t the same as being deaf,” I said with a smile.
I thought her eyes were going to leap off her face and she got that set to her big jaw like she was going to let me have it.
I kept the smile froze on my face.
She gave me another gander. “Cousin Lack? Lackland Ask?”
Now the jaw didn’t look so bad supporting the big smile.
“Hello Ruthie, long time no see.”
“Whatever brings you all the way out here? I never thought I’d see you in a million years. Someone told me you were living in the city doing some kind of investigations, is that true?”
I could tell she was a little confused and asking herself the same questions.
“And why are you wearing sunglasses at this time of day?”
I took them off and even the cook gasped.
“Funny you should ask.” And so I told her she was right. I was a private investigator. I even showed her my card where it said, Lackland Ask, Confidential Matters Investigated. I explained how as the result of an investigation I ended up on the wrong side of a mob boss and he has some of his goons worked me over. The cook was looking at me with narrowed eyes but Ruthie was fascinated. I told her that because of my investigation, the assassination of a federal judge and a gold heist had been foiled. Ruthie shivered at the word “heist.” Because I was a witness I had to lie low to avoid being knocked off. She mouth the words “knocked off.” “Nobody is likely to look for me in Ridley because they think I’m a born and bred city rat. So maybe I can lie low. . . .”
As I was talking the eyes that had met me at the front door peeked from behind her mother’s akimbo arms. She looked about seven, then a sullen looking boy of about ten, his hair freshly shorn, came to stand in the doorway, and a younger barefoot girl in a faded shift clung to the calf at the hem of her mother’s dress.
And it came to me. “Out at Little Lake. Does the cabin out there still belong to Granny?”
She had to think about that for a minute. “Granny’s will said that the summer cabin belonged to all of us so I guess it does, but no one goes there anymore. It’s falling apart. No one has any money to fix it up. And it’s so out of the way.” She said it like Ridley was the cat’s meow. “And the mosquitoes.”
“Sounds like just what the doctor ordered. Maybe I can spend my time out there fixing the place up. But no one can know I’m out there. If anyone asks you who is staying out there, just tell them my name is. . .Stan Gardner, a distant cousin, and I’m writing a book and need the peace and quiet.”
Ruthie nodded and said, “Oh, alright, Stan, the gardener. I don’t suppose Cousin Mack and Cousin Myrtle need to know. You can bunk in the shed out back where Uncle Ned tied his flies for tonight.”
The cook handed me a plate. “Siddown. You gonna do all that, you gonna need something to eat.”
Ruthie came to visit me that night. She wanted to catch me up on some family history, and maybe add to some of it. I was beat and the Old Hickory helped numb the fact that the dusty cot was missing a rib and it was like trying to sleep over a washtub on a mattress that wasn’t much more than a mangled washcloth. There wasn’t much light coming in through the one grimy window of the shed. I banged my knee against something large and hard under a ratty tarpaulin trying to find my way around in the dark, a machine of some kind before stumbling to the workbench and the cot beside it to set down my bag. I was moving dust that hadn’t been moved in a while and it made me sneeze. And I remembered the smell. Uncle Ned was a drinking man, and the walls seeped the familiar vapors of old alcohol. I’d heard my old man say that the only thing his cousin tied in the shed was “one on.” I toasted Uncle Ned with the last corner of the half pint and set about to make myself comfortable.
She ducked in the doorway with the wick on the lamp trimmed short so that just a dim pale glow lit part of her face. It looked like a face out of a Hollywood photo magazine. All of a sudden I wasn’t all that tuckered out as I thought I was. She came closer and I saw she was wearing a quilted house coat open at the front to reveal a frilly shimmering slip. And she’d perfumed up.
“I just came out to see if you were doing all right.” She glanced around. “I was just about to turn in myself. I hope this is comfortable enough.” It was the smile that said everything.
After the cook had served me and I was allowed to sit at the kitchen table. Ruthie’s daughters had had difficulty restraining their curiosity, the boy, though, keeping a wary distance. And Ruthie, once she got over her surprise, had to explain to the kids who I was and where I placed on this branch of the family tree. “His father was Uncle Ned’s nephew by his sister’s brother who was Granny’s nephew by her brother.”
I’d been curious when I realized that Ruthie and her three kids, and the cook, seemed to be the only inhabitants. “Is your husband working late?” seemed like an imposition as soon as I said it.
Ruthie made a mad mouth and frowned. “Angel’s daddy works at Big Lake Resort and this is the busy season so he’s almost never home,” she said resentfully indicating the youngest. “Polly and Paul’s father went off to find work on the railroad and I ain’t heard from him since.”
The cook was giving me an eat your food and mind your own business glare.
“I heard that more of the cousins and family lived here.”
Ruthie cocked her head to one side and gave a big sigh. “Well, they did and then they didn’t. You musta heard that it was a real three ring circus out here, especially after Granny passed. The boys were always fighting with one another and getting thrown in jail. Or beating up other boys who were showing interests in the girl cousins. Eventually the girls left with their husbands or went to try their luck in the city. The boys kept fighting and causing mayhem so Constable Thorndyke told them if he found them out this way again he was gonna throw them in jail.”
The cook nodded her head. “It took him a few tries but they finally got the message. Ain’t been by in a long while. Ain’t seen hide nor hair of them.” She gave a good riddance nod of her chins.
That explained some of it, and explained why Ruthie was visiting me once the lights in the house had gone dark.