“House-whores for winners, hand jobs for the bad luck crowd.”
HUNTER S. THOMPSON, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Cass thought it seemed like a simple thing to do. Fly to Las Vegas late on the evening of December 28 and return early on the morning of December 29. She would earn almost 1300 miles for each leg of the trip, more than enough to qualify as a Gold Star passenger for the coming year. She had run her numbers. She always ran her numbers. Because she traveled so often for work, the benefits of being a Gold Star passenger far outweighed the cost of a couple of cheap Vegas flights. Free baggage. Free upgrades if she checked in early. Front row seats. And it was the same for the friends and colleagues she reserved with. Over the course of a year, Gold Star saved her a lot of money. And a lot of time. Sometimes, it even saved a close flight connection.
And, tonight, since it was one of the quietest nights of the year and she would still be a Gold Star passenger until midnight on December 31, she might easily be upgraded to First Class for both flights. The luck of the draw. “Free” drinks. Maybe a “free” breakfast. Nothing she would have access to if she flew Coach all next year without her Gold star. The airlines practiced intermittent reinforcement of the slickest kind. It made her feel like she was in
kindergarten. Hard to beat the airlines when it came to creating tiers, class stratification, and havoc. But, tonight, it was not a bad way to spend $178. A round trip flight to Vegas. If she had bought the miles, it would have been $2,600, but, expensive as they were, those purchased miles wouldn’t count toward her Gold Star. Only two, back-to-back, in-the-air flights counted toward the Gold. Her body, usually billed at $800 per hour, needed to be in the plane, in the seat. She felt both manipulated and triumphant.
But it was such a lame, cheap thing to do, she didn’t tell any of her friends. No one needed to know she was such a nerd about airline miles. Or ran her numbers so often on perks.
She booked the Vegas flight in late November, when her December travel schedule got slim. And when the flights were still cheap. Would she make Gold? Or wouldn’t she? She wouldn’t know until Christmas.
But she really didn’t decide to go to Vegas until the afternoon she was scheduled to fly. December 28. No actual preparation. She left almost everything in her office, including her house keys and most of her credit cards. No cash, except the Ben Franklin she kept in her wallet for emergencies. She had her passport and her Amex card. The boarding pass was on her phone. She would stay at work until after 7 P.M. Ride light rail to the airport. Carry a small leather backpack with a good book. And curl up in the corner of the brightly lit, over-waxed Las Vegas airport for the four or five hours she would need to wait to board the early morning return flight. Once back in Seattle, she could shower at the office, and, with the change of sweater she stashed in her bottom drawer, work all day on December 29 without skipping a beat. No one would be the wiser.
But she hadn’t included Wendy. Wendy was the woman seated next to her in the first row of the plane on the trip from Seattle to Vegas. Wendy did not seem to be counting miles or relying upon the upgrade policies of a faceless airline. She didn’t appear to be tied to a job, or to live anywhere other than “the East Coast.” Wendy said she had purchased her own First-Class seat, late and on a whim. Cass thought it likely Wendy’s one-way ticket had cost upwards of a thousand dollars. Maybe more. But it was hard to be sure in the shifting sands of Wendy’s conversation. Wendy only said she’d felt like experiencing the buzz of the baccarat tables at the Palazzo. Wendy had long dark hair, and a whiter-than-white smile.
As Wendy put it—persuasively—there could be nothing more boring than five hours in an empty airport with only a biography of Ulysses S. Grant and the sound of hundreds of empty, bleeping slot machines to keep Cass company. She also convinced Cass that it might be frightening if that monotony were interrupted by one drunk weirdo who skirted security and decided to interrupt Cass’s reading.
Wendy’s vision of the night Cass had planned was grim. Now she was trying to talk Cass into leaving the safety of the Vegas airport, to travel in a comped Palazzo limo into the city for a few hours of high life. At first, Cass really didn’t know what the woman had in mind. Baccarat? No, not baccarat.
“I’ve booked a top floor suite. Floor to ceiling glass.” Wendy looked at her tank watch. Cartier? Probably. “The staff should have just begun icing the champagne. Next they’ll turn down the bed.”
Cass was thirty-three, but she knew she looked tired. Older. Like a person who worked too early and too late. She guessed Wendy to be about her own age, but a little better preserved. Less work. More spa treatments. And fewer late night flirtations with red wine. Maybe just more spa treatments. On the plane, Wendy ordered them both red wine every time the flight attendant came within hailing distance. Cass had skipped an over-priced dinner at the airport, and now, with no food in sight, she was running on straight Cabernet.
“Are you sisters? You look so much…,” the flight attendant paused, “not just alike… more like you emerged from the same shell.” The attendant hovered as she delivered their third—or fourth—glass of wine.
“Something like that! Aren’t we a perfect pair?” Wendy said, taking Cass’s hand. “We’re lovers. And lovers need wine!”
The flight attendant’s pause was professional. But she blushed.
Cass also blushed, but she didn’t want Wendy to let go of her hand. Wendy’s hand was so soft. It embarrassed her to realize that her own fingers were calloused from years of keyboarding, from years of working early and late, from years of forgetting to moisturize.
She and Wendy were the first two people off the plane. It was 1:30 A.M. Neither had checked baggage or luggage in the overhead compartment. Cass had her Tumi backpack. Wendy had an oversize Hermes purse, maybe the one that was so famously impossible to purchase. Or maybe it was just a good knock-off.
When they reached the end of the jetway, Wendy looped her arm into Cass’s and guided her towards the Ground Transportation signs. “Trust me, it will be fun. A night you will never forget” Then Wendy pulled her close, and kissed her. Cass had never kissed a woman before and was startled by how soft her lips were, and how good she smelled. It was the purest understanding of men she’d ever had. This was what the fuss was about. What made their peckers hard. Soft lips. Soft everything. In her heart, she knew that kiss was a promise she would need to see to its end.
Wendy laughed, reading her mind, and tightened her grip on the strap of Cass’s backpack.
Cass laughed too, but pulled away, suddenly feeling exposed, aware that several hundred Seattle people were funneling around them. She was a partner at Seattle’s premier accounting firm. And those passengers were all either her clients or her potential clients.
She looked up into Wendy’s laughing green eyes, surprised to find her even taller than Cass herself. Seated side by side, she had thought they were pretty much the same height. Cass was tall, and it was rare for her to meet a taller woman.
But, after that kiss, she wasn’t quite sure she could talk. “I’m sorry to be a bore, but I am a bore. By definition. I’m a CPA. It would be a disaster if I didn’t catch the morning plane. I have client meetings. I have end of year reviews. And I haven’t told a soul that I’m in Las Vegas. No one.”
“You’ll be on your morning plane, Cassie dear. Scout’s honor. We have four hours. I promise you will never forget them. And what you and I do tonight in Las Vegas will be as secret as the city slogan promises. What happens in Vegas will stay in Vegas.”
Detective Ann Skalny stood on a milk crate so she could see into the dumpster. The body rested on a bed of Styrofoam peanuts. The dumpster was behind a strip mall on Tropicana Avenue, less than a mile from the airport. A white woman in her early thirties, dressed conservatively in a black sweater and tailored black wool slacks. Expensive high black leather boots. There didn’t appear to be a purse. No coat. No visible cause of death. Maybe a tourist from someplace colder. Come to Las Vegas to do…whatever tourists come here to do. Or maybe a quiet local who never escaped air conditioning. The victim’s clothes could have been those of a suburban mom, a lawyer, or even a high-end call girl. Good clothes. A quiet, monied woman.
Skalny knew they were lucky. A dumpster diver had called it in from the phone at the 7-11 across the street. A guy searching for last night’s binned donuts had decided to be a good citizen. Not just leave Jane Doe to be carted off to the transfer station in the early morning garbage run. A Jane who had passed through the compactor would pose a whole different problem.
Skalny looked out across the desert as dawn began to creep across the dry creek beds at the edge of the city. In the distance, a plane lifted off from McCarran’s second runway, banked, and headed north. It was just 6 A.M.
[A work in progress.]
Copyright Sam Gaynor, 2018
All rights reserved. The moral right of the author has been asserted.
I can’t believe the weasel is late. Who the fuck does he think he is? Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt or whoever that skinny shit is who’s always swaggering around on cable?
Denny’s Diner is a pit. Of course. What was I thinking when I suggested it? Mauve and slate blue. Our 1985 Bishop Riley H.S. prom colors. I close my eyes. Reagan is still in the White House and I’m dancing with David to the Pointer Sisters. But let’s cut to the chase here. No matter how many times I close my eyes, the cream pitcher is still sticky, the mauve carpet is still filthy, and Dr. David Donohue, the Emerald City’s pet Orthodontist, is still planning to dump me for Tami the Trophy.
And, of course, I’m sitting in this nowhere “burb” the maps call Fife. Stuck somewhere south of Seattle between an ARCO and an Arby’s. Desperate for a cigarette. God, but I hate this damn puritan ciggy law. Hate losing my last, secret, trailer trash habit. Hate trying to pretend that it’s just fine to reread the menu a dozen times rather than light up. Hate feeling like a fucking addict all the time.
“May I refresh your coffee, ma’am?” the waitress says, waving one of those Bunn coffee pots I thought Starbucks had made obsolete.
I nod. Trying not to engage Bambi in a conversation that might lead her to remember me. Ma’am. Hard not to just sigh. A “ma’am” kind of day. A day when the mirror makes me look old, no matter how much Retin-A I slather on. A day perfect for meeting Michael Casey, the poser who is willing to shoot my dear, dear David.
I reach down and finger the wad at the bottom of my Cole Haan bag. Still there. Fifty K. A bit more than the week’s grocery money. But cheap at twice the price. Even if it is only the down payment and the other two hundred K is stashed under the Benz’s spare tire. But it’s still probably less than Michael’s parents paid dear Dr. Donohue for their boy’s arrow-straight, telegenic smile.
Just as I finish pouring the ersatz cream into my cold coffee, the little shit swaggers in through the door and flashes his million-watt smile. Worn, faded jeans. Ripped in just the right places. Nice, nice ass. And attitude to die for. Maybe fucking him should be part of the package. Sort of a Denny’s Grand Slam special.
She’s there. In a corner booth. The only person for miles who looks like she could float a quarter mil to kill her old man. Sean Donohue’s mom. Maggie. The star of most of my seventh-grade wet dreams. Mine and those of every other thirteen-year-old boy at Loyola Academy. Sean’s too, I think.
The Denny’s glass door glides closed behind me. I pause in the doorway to remove my D&Gs. Ten years later, Mrs. Donohue still looks like Gwyneth Paltrow. Or what I can imagine Gwyneth will look like in her mid-forties after her first facelift and new titties. Well, okay, she’s better from fifty feet than she is up close. But still not bad for my mom’s old tennis partner.
“Have you ordered my tea?” I smile as I say it. The “code” line we’ve agreed upon. I wonder whether she’s decided to go through with it.
“I have,” she says, smiling too. Capped teeth. White. Perfect. Fake. I guess at thirteen I hadn’t understood caps. “I hope you like chamomile.” she says, the smile quavering slightly. Hard not to wonder what her teeth looked like before the costly miracles of modern dentistry. For the first time I wonder if I’m charging enough. She is going to be a very, very rich widow.
“I do like chamomile,” I say, sliding close. “Isn’t that the tea Peter Rabbit’s mother gave him when he was ill?”
“It is,” she says, stirring her coffee and sliding her perfectly manicured hand down my thigh. “Although you certainly don’t look ill.”
Now that we’ve connected, there’s not much more to say. She’s decided. A very cold martini is what she should have had waiting for me. I’ve never had chamomile tea in my life.
After a long silence, she hands me a business card with an address in Tacoma, the city just south of this yucko chain restaurant.
“Do you know the Murano Hotel?” she asks, lifting her huge designer purse off the padded seat and handing it to me.
I place it on the bench seat to my right. Couldn’t she have put it in a messenger bag? Something less girlie? But girlie or not, it’s heavy enough to be stuffed with the down payment on Dr. D’s demise. So I guess I’m butch enough to muscle it out of here. “The Murano is the old Sheraton, right? Duded up to fit in with all the new glass blowing shit they’re doing in Tacoma?”
She nods. “I’ve reserved a room with a view of Commencement Bay.”
The card in my hand includes a room number. It seems the quarter mil will come with fringe benefits.
Maggie Donohue stands and picks up the check, speaking quietly. “David is on the Tacoma glass museum board of directors. His meeting there should end about eight. Tacoma is such a dangerous city, don’t you think? I’m always so afraid something will happen to him in that dark underground parking garage. That some gang banger will go for his wallet. Or worse.”
I nod, feeling the weight of my Glock against the left side of my chest. There were a lot of us gang banger wannabees at Loyola Academy. Blond, blue-eyed rich thirteen- year-olds who slung our pants and imagined we were 50 Cent.
She looks at her watch. Either a Cartier, or a damn good fake. “See you at the Murano in…say…four hours.”
“And the rest of your investment in my law school education?”
“I’ll have it with me.”
I look out at the black Benz parked just on the other side of the window and nod for the last time. “Have Grey Goose martinis waiting in the room.”
It’s nine thirty-eight. The ice around the fifth of Grey Goose has probably been water for more than a half hour. I’ve been pacing for more than two. And the little shit is in the wind. I don’t know whether David’s meeting has run late or I’ve paid fifty K to be stood up by a boy.
I open the Grey Goose and pour a triple. Why bother to even wave the vermouth bottle over my glass? If I’m going to spend the evening alone at the Murano, I might as well enjoy it.
I don’t hear the faint tap at first. But the second time, I’m sure. I exhale. It can’t be the Tacoma police. It can’t be David. Only one person knows where I am. Michael. The shit.
When I open the door, the swaggering prick looks like he’s swallowed a whole cage full of canaries.
“Done?” I ask.
“Done,” he says. “And I’ve brought us a little something to help us celebrate.”
“I have the Grey Goose. French Vermouth. And twists of lemon.” I stop, suddenly feeling like a flight attendant.
“Perfect. But I’m assuming this is something you want to celebrate in an extra special way. That this is a moment you want to enjoy. Big time.”
I nod. Trying the recapture the surge of desire I’d felt when he walked though the door at Denny’s.
“I scored some ‘X’ in Hilltop after I finished my task in the parking garage.”
“X?” I ask, suddenly feeling too much like Sean’s mom.
“Ecstasy. You know. The rave drug. It feels like cocaine, followed by heroin, followed by….” Michael smiles that straight white smile of his and rubs the back of his hand slowly across my right nipple. “Well…ecstasy. And…it makes sex feel as though it lasts fucking forever.”
I sip my vodka, imagining Michael as I had last seen him at the View Ridge pool. My son’s best friend. Rigid under his Speedo.
He reaches into his pocket and displays a large capsule. “This is for you, babe. Let’s go for maximum effect and snort it.”
Michael slips a small mirror out of his pocket and squares it on the coffee table. But he’s not a man in a hurry. He makes us both martinis. Eight to one. Exquisite.
“Was everything all right in the garage?” I ask, wanting to hear some scrap about the last four or five hours.
“No problem. But, you’re right, that garage is a dangerous spot. I’m surprised they don’t improve the lighting. Or add security guards.”
He sips his martini. “And the rest of my fee?”
“Under the spare tire.” I point at my overnight bag. “My spare Benz key is in the side pocket if you’d like to count it. Cover the bed in Ben Franklins.”
He shakes his blond head. “No rush. I trust you.” Then he opens the capsule, spreads the contents on the mirror with a razor blade, and divides it into four lines. “For you, Mrs…Maggie. Consolation for the new widow.”
“No,” I say. Not quite able to save desire from the wave of sorrow. “I haven’t done X in forever. You first.”
Michael doesn’t need a second invitation. He removes a hundred-dollar bill from his wallet, rolls it, and snorts all four of the lines in quick sequence. Is this part of my original fifty K, or have I hired a boy who always carries hundred-dollar bills?
The smirking shit inhales deeply, smiles, sips his martini, and unbuttons the top button of his ripped 501s. “Ready to join me, babe?”
I nod, realizing a woman who’s put a contract out on her husband can probably smoke in a non-smoking hotel. I light the first Marlboro I’ve had in what feels like a year. He produces another capsule and repeats the mumbo-jumbo with the mirror and the razor blade.
I sip my martini, take a long drag from my ciggy, and snuff it against the nasty glass sculpture on the coffee table . Then I dip my head and begin to snort the lines of white powder. After the first, I feel an immediate giddiness. A freedom I’ve not felt in a long time. Maybe this is the essence of rich widow. A whiff of inherited money. Lots of it.
I pause, sipping my chilled martini, shivering as my tongue is suffused with intense cold.
After the second line, I realize that the wall behind the bed is backlit glass, and that the room is filled with soft, golden light. How could I not have noticed? The boy leans forward and kisses me. His lips are soft. Wet. His tongue pushes lightly against my teeth. Everything is infused with joy.
He takes the rolled bill off the coffee table and hands it to me. I inhale the third line. Suddenly I feel flushed. I can hardly wait to get out of my clothes. As though he understands this, the boy begins to unbutton my silk blouse, pausing after each button. Smiling. I reach and unbutton the second button on the fly of his 501s. The denim feels hot under my hand.
I need no prompting to snort the fourth line. The white powder has obliterated any memory of David. There is only the insistent present. When the fourth fat line of powder hits my blood stream or my brain or wherever it hits, there is a great starburst, then…darkness.
Sean’s mom looks happy as she falls to the thick carpet. Happy and young. The blogs say that snorting oxycontin will do this. Kill you. That kids die this way all the time.
Since I’ve been snorting baking soda, I feel fine. Relieved. Fucking Sean’s mom would have been tough. I could have done it if I’d had to. But it would have been tough.
I hum as I wipe down the mirror, the razor blade, and the Grey Goose bottle. I substitute a bill from her wallet for my hundred and place my martini glass in a plastic bag I’ve brought with me. I examine the scene as I slip the Benz’s spare key out of her overnight bag.
Mrs. David Donahue, alone at the Murano, mixing vodka and oxycontin. An inadvertent overdose for sure. Nothing that will bar her from burial at Calvary Catholic Cemetery. Particularly since she’s been going through such a painful time. I imagine standing near Sean at the funeral. Maybe my Armani suit. White on white shirt. No tie.
I feel him behind me as I bend over the trunk of the Benz scooping bundles of Franklins into my duffel bag.
He runs his hand up the inside seam of my 501s, knee to groin, letting his hand rest where the seams join. “Everything went well, Michael?”
I turn into his embrace. Dr. Donohue. My orthodontist. My teacher. My childhood lover. “It was flawless, David. Flawless.”
As he presses against me, I feel the Glock hard against my chest. Soon enough, I think. Soon enough. The world is full of dark, dangerous parking garages.
Copyright Sam Gaynor, 2012
All rights reserved. The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Coupe de Ville: A Detroit Fable
(from Chelsea Avenue)
Mel Pulaski parked his midnight blue Cadillac convertible in front of 14219, peeled himself from the dove gray leather driver’s seat, and stood in the center of Chelsea Avenue. The house had curb appeal. Or it would once the Harper Realty crew had cut the lawn and added a few geraniums next to the stoop. It was brick, with a front porch, a side drive, and a free-standing garage. Maybe the best house on this side of the street. The neighborhood was about what he’d expected. Asbestos siding, narrow lots, street parking, frame houses dating from the early 30’s. Auto-worker housing, but pretty well maintained. The biggest selling point would be the mature elms that arched over the center of the avenue. Cathedral, he thought, already beginning to draft the ad for the Sunday Detroit News. Standing in the center of Chelsea, he felt like he was in a cathedral.
Mel shook himself. This was about a fast flip, not a nutso religious experience.
Peter Vandenberg’s instructions were clear enough. Sell everything in the house. Sell the house. Send him a cashier’s check.
Vandenberg had given Mel power of attorney for the whole deal. Called him on the phone. Long distance. Said he had heard from one of his buddies at the Chrysler Tank Automotive Command that Pulaski was an expert on making houses move. That was it. All Vandenberg wanted Mel to do was move this house fast. He didn’t care about top dollar. He cared about speed. Mel sent him the power of attorney paperwork and the guy sent it back by return mail. Signed. The sale would be smooth as glass. A double commission. A little skim. Gold plated hubs for the Caddy. Subtle.
It was so easy, Mel was a little surprised the guy had been legit. The Wayne County Assessor records showed Vandenberg owned the house free and clear. He had paid $5,600 cash for it in 1957. No mortgage. No liens. No divorcée with a pending claim. No mess. Even the signatures looked good to go. Peter Vandenberg’s signature on the deed looked a lot like his signature on the POA. Piece o’ cake, Mel thought, resisting the impulse to pinch himself.
Pulaski walked up the stairs to the Vandenberg home. Neatly painted. Non-skid strips glued precisely to the center of each of the ten stairs. Sturdy handrails on both sides. The house would be a peach to show.
When he reached the top stair and turned to admire the lawn, he noticed three kids staring at him from the concrete slab porch across the street. He didn’t much like kids. Didn't have any and hoped he never would. These looked like auto worker kids. Italian. Irish. Polish. Hyphenated Catholics. Like him, only without his drive. Kids who would grow up to work the line for Chrysler. Or maybe roll out as Detroit cops. Ten year old versions of the ones who had called him “fatty” at Pershing High School and been stuck in the draft in 1943. Kids who wouldn’t wind up driving Cadillac convertibles, that was for damn sure.
Pulaski sat down on the front porch glider and wiped the sweat from his face. It was in the low 90’s, but he should have been able to walk from the car to the porch without breaking a sweat. He was not fat. Not really. Must be the humidity. He stood up and looked at his reflection in the living room window. His pinpoint cotton white shirt had been fresh from the shirt laundry two hours ago. Now it looked like a rumpled tent. A size 20-36 big and tall custom-made tent, but still, a tent. He pulled the shirt away from his skin, hoping the breeze might reach the rolls of flesh below.
He was so absorbed in his own reflection that the voice made his heart leap in his chest. “Hey Mister, do you know what happened to Mr. Vandenberg?”
Pulaski looked down at the scrawny girl standing on the city sidewalk in front of 14219. She was nine or ten. He was surprised to see she was wearing a black cowboy hat with a Mattel Fanner Fifty belt strapped tight around her shorts. “No, honey, I don’t.” Charm was his second defense with kids. The ones he couldn’t avoid.
“Well, if you don’t know him, why were you sitting on his glider?”
“I didn’t exactly say I didn’t know him,” Pulaski said, trying not to sound as irritated as he felt. “I’ve talked to him on the phone. He’s asked me to sell his house. You know. Adult business. I sell real estate.”
The girl didn’t say anything at first. Stupid, he supposed. These streets were full of stupid cows who grew up to be baby machines.
Finally, she said, “Did you know Gail?”
Pulaski didn’t know what the kid was talking about. There was no spouse listed on Vandenberg’s title to 14219 Chelsea Avenue.
When he didn’t answer, the girl said, “If you didn’t know Gail, do you know what happened to her?”
“No, I don’t know anything about any Gail.” He said, taking Vandenberg’s keys from the front pocket of his seersucker suit pants. These kids weren’t like the elm trees. They weren’t going to enhance the curb appeal of 14219. Maybe a few nickels could get them to keep themselves scarce.
“I found her body,” the girl said, hesitating, as though she were sharing a secret. “In the garage. Everyone knows, I guess. I mean…that I found her. They even know about the maggots.” Then the girl squared her thin little shoulders under her T-shirt and looked him in the eye. “Who’s going to want to buy the house where Gail died? Maybe where her father murdered her?”
Mel Pulaski had brought twelve families to 14219 before he began to get nervous. He never saw the scrawny girl with the gun belt again, but almost two months had passed, and he still hadn’t sold the house. Soon the elms would be dropping their leaves.
The first step was always the same. The ad ran Sunday in the Detroit News. The Harper Realty phone rang like crazy. Every family that saw the house fell in love with it. Mel had staged the house with a few of Vandenberg’s things. The gleaming white Baby Grand piano in the living room, the books in the bookshelves on both sides of the fake fireplace, and a comfortable reading chair with an antique lamp. He’d kept a lovely white canopied princess bed in the kid’s room that all the moms fell for. There hadn’t been a television, but he always pointed out how easy it would be to substitute one for the piano.
The house was a good value—if anything, a bit on the low side, but not so low as to make a customer hinky. For a vet, the mortgage was a walk in the park. And even though Chrysler was on strike, everyone knew the end result would be good for the UAW. Better hourly wages and sweet retirement bennies.
Folks asked to see the house every Sunday afternoon. Usually, they were long-time union guys coming from Pittsburgh, or Philly, or even Brooklyn. By the standards of those places, the Chelsea Avenue house was a gem. The trees kept the porch cool, Chrysler was a ten minute drive for dad, Chatham was a grocery that could satisfy even the pickiest mom, and the Catholic grade school was two blocks away. At the end of every showing, he was confident he had made a sale.
And then something happened. He didn’t have any idea what it was, but he thought it likely that after they left his office each family had taken a short ride back to Chelsea Avenue to take a last look at the house before they plunked down their earnest money. And, then, well, the earth caved in. Could have been anything. After the scrawny girl had told him she’d found the Vandenberg kid’s body, he’d thought about giving her money toward a new air rifle, or another Fanner Fifty. Serious hush money, not nickels for candy. But, after the first couple of turn-downs, he’d realized there were too many leaks to plug. The cop in the house just to the south had been first on the scene, women in every house up and down Chelsea Avenue thought being alone in the Vandenberg house would give them the willies, and Father Francis Xavier Seward, a priest at the closest Catholic church, had given a sermon on the great sadness the house had endured. A fucking sermon.
However his potential buyers learned what they learned, the end of the story was always the same. The next morning, just as he arrived for work, one of the adults—usually the wife—called Mel to say that they were sorry, but the house “just didn’t meet their requirements.”
And an hour later—as though he were psychic—Peter Vandenberg called. Mel knew Vandenberg would shift the listing to another agent if he didn’t sell the house very soon. Sixty days goes fast. Mel also knew that if the house went to another agency, things were bound to be a little messy. More than a little. Mel had planned to bury some of the “liberties” he had taken with sale of the furniture in the fine print of taxes and whatever when he sold the house. But, without a house sale, he would have a lot of missing moolah to account for.
He thought about that little accounting problem as he drove David Green and his wife Helen toward 14219. He had never been this close to a Negro. And he had never imagined a white girl would marry a Negro. He wasn’t even sure it was legal in Michigan. Actually, the whole idea nauseated him.
There had been a few Negro students at Pershing High School during the war, of course. That was where Mr. Wade, his Business Math teacher, had taught Mel that he had to call them Negroes, with a capital “N,” not that other “n” word his parents—and pretty much everyone else in Detroit—used, if he was going to be a modern businessman. Since Mr. Wade was the only teacher who’d ever thought he would amount to anything, Mel still called them Negroes. He was definitely a modern businessman.
The Negro students at Pershing had kept to themselves. In the shop and homemaking classes they generally were tracked into, as well as in the cafeteria. And the few times they came to school dances, they never mingled and usually made it clear that the bands at Pershing were tame by comparison with anything that might be playing in the Cass corridor on a Saturday night.
So Mel had seen Negroes. But from a distance. At bus stops near Briggs Stadium after the Tigers were forced to hire their first Negro ballplayer in ‘58. Hanging from the back of Detroit city garbage trucks. Not driving, of course, but lifting the cans.
But this Negro was something else again. David Green said he was a teacher at Wayne State. Some kind of mucky muck professor of medicine. Said he had been a professor at some school in New York and had sold his house there before he left. He was prepared to pay cash for 14219. He said his wife was a doctor, too. A doctor for a clinic at Trumbull and Twelfth. But the only kind of clinic that could be at Trumbull and Twelfth would be some kind of Negro clinic. A white girl doctor working at a Negro clinic. Hard to think that was much. But Mel knew Wayne State was a real college. He even knew white guys who had gone there on the G.I. bill when they got home from their war.
Since the asking price wasn’t in the paper, Mel had told Green the seller wanted $6000 more for 14219 than Vandenberg was actually asking. David Green hadn’t even blinked. Mel knew he needed to check whether there were covenants running with the land that barred a sale to a Negro, but since some Chelsea Avenue folks said Vandenberg had been a Jew, he guessed there probably weren’t. David Green was wearing a suit and tie and looked like the kind of guy who would know the neighborhoods where the land was platted white-only and deeds barred Negroes. He wasn’t looking in Palmer Woods or one of the Grosse Pointes, and he didn’t look like the kind of man who would waste his time.
Mel didn’t know what he thought about David Green sitting on the dove gray upholstery of his Cadillac. About kinky black hairs finding their way into the crack between his upper and lower seat cushions. He could get the car cleaned, of course. But he wondered if he would ever feel the same way about his Coupe de Ville 390 again. He tried to imagine his Cadillac after a Negro had been his passenger. He couldn’t. He supposed he would just have to sell it. But he was also mystified. He knew Negroes were supposed to love Cadillacs, yet David Green hadn’t said a word when he got in the car. He acted as though Mel’s car was just a car, not a Cadillac, and like he was running the show, not Mel.
When they left Harper Realty, Mel put the top up on the Caddy, so folks were less likely to realize David Green was a Negro. Then he adjusted the mirror, so he could take an occasional sly glance at Helen Green in his back seat. She looked a bit like Elizabeth Taylor—violet eyes, dark hair, and one helluva body. She leaned forward and rested her hand on David Green’s shoulder, as though she couldn’t bear to be physically separated from him.
Mel didn’t go in much for sex with women. Too expensive. Particularly since his own right hand was more than up to the task. But Helen Green could make a guy re-think that decision. He wondered how the soft, dove gray leather of his Cadillac felt beneath her silk stockings. Not something he was going to ask her. Helen Green was not a chatty woman. She had repeated his name when he introduced himself, but said nothing more. She acted as though he were the kind of functionary she preferred not to talk to.
When they arrived in front of 14219, Mel held his breath. He supposed it was possible that someone might egg his car while they were inside. The car repulsed him now, but he would be aiming to get top dollar for it once Vandenberg and Green were out of his life.
David and Helen Green said they liked the house. Helen sat down at the piano and played something Mel had never heard before—something beautiful—and David Green sat down in the reading chair and closed his eyes. Mel did not mention how easy it would be to replace the piano with a television set. No one egged the car while they were in the house, but Mel thought it likely that this would be the last time he would be able to come to 14219 without risk.
When Chelsea Avenue learned about David Green, he guessed he would either need to sit for the real estate exam in Ohio or return with a pocket full of $100 bills and buy every house within walking distance of 14219. He would have the money to do that. David Green’s extra $6000 would probably buy the first fifteen or twenty.
Once David Green signed his earnest money, Chelsea Avenue would become a neighborhood suitable only for Negroes. A neighborhood where $300 cash would buy a family home. Maybe even a duplex. A neighborhood where every Catholic family would try to flee to Warren or Roseville and would be grateful to get anything for their home. He thought about the girl with the Fanner Fifty on her hip. Her family would be among the first to flee.
At Harper Realty, David and Helen Green sat across the desk from him. David Green said he was anxious to complete the earnest money agreement so their movers could begin the long trip from New York. Helen held Green’s arm and watched Mel.
Pulaski moved through the paperwork with speed he didn’t know he had. He wanted this house sold and he wanted David Green out of his tiny office. He couldn’t think about the consequences. He felt like a horse with blinders on, speeding toward the barn.
Just as he was finishing the earnest money agreement, Sam Everson, Harper Realty’s managing partner, clattered through the office’s alley entrance. Mel could feel the office partitions shake as he came through the door.
Sam was still in his golf shoes. He had probably been on the back nine at the Grosse Pointe County Club when a runner from the clubhouse had found him. Mel didn’t need to hear the words to know what Sam was thinking as he came up the corridor. “For God’s sake, Mel where’s your guts? If my damn country club can bar David Green from playing golf there, surely this real estate firm can find a way to avoid selling a house in a tight, closed eastside Catholic neighborhood to him!”
But when Sam Everson burst through his door, he said nothing, just gestured with his thumb toward his office.
“Excuse me please,” Mel said to the Greens, and lumbered toward Sam’s office.
“Have you lost your mind?” Everson asked, pulling a hand towel out of his lower desk drawer and draping it over his red, dripping face. “We will lose…everything.” He said simply. “We will be the real estate firm that…..”
“That sold an unsellable house to a Negro.”
“We will be the real estate firm that destroyed Detroit,” Sam said. “You get it, don’t you, Mel? This is the first domino in the eastside game. The one everyone has been waiting for.”
Mel nodded, and placed the contract in front of Sam for his signature. “It’s the first domino. But why would that be a bad thing for us. We’re just businessmen. You live in Grosse Pointe Shores. I live in Grosse Pointe Woods. This has nothing to do with us. Or our families. Negroes will never live in the Pointes. All this means is that we have more houses to sell in Detroit. Houses we will pick up cheap and sell high. With a double commission on every home.”
Sam groped in his desk to find a pen, sweat dripping on his blotter.
Mel spoke quietly. “Green is paying more than twice market value for a house that otherwise will never be sold. No covenant runs with the land. We have no protection. And I believe he will have one of those Negro groups picket us if we don’t sell him the house.”
Sam nodded and signed the earnest money agreement. “Are you ready to buy the rest of Chelsea Avenue?”
“I will be once he hands me the cash. I’ll just need to record the sale and get rid of my Caddy.”
“Well, actually, Mel, given the way we will need to re-sell Chelsea Avenue, you may as well keep it for a while. A lot of our new clients are going to love it.”
Mel nodded, imagining a parade of pomaded black curls against his dove gray leather upholstery, and lifted the signed agreement off Sam’s desk. Once he finished selling Chelsea Avenue, he would head for Florida in a baby blue Lincoln with a 425 engine. Detroit was dead.
Copyright Sam Gaynor, 2014
All rights reserved. The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Winner, Best Short Story, Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, 2014
[from Chelsea Avenue]
Her body is in the basement. Next to the second-hand pump I will soon use to replace her blood with embalming fluid. A simple process. One I always try to imagine as gentle. But I've never run the pump on a child without another embalmer present. And, of course, this is a naked child who has come to me from the coroner with only a filthy pink party dress stuffed into a paper bag.
My name is Dave Killoran. I'm the Catholic undertaker for St. Justine's parish. Sometimes, even for the spillover from Holy Angels' parish. Although, if I am completely honest, those Holy Angels' folks are more likely to choose A. B. Potter and the other more hoity-toity homes further north in the suburbs.
Today I'm nervous. Nervous about having her in the basement. Nervous about the pump. Nervous about what the parishioners may really do when they hear the inquest verdict. I would babble aloud if there were someone here to listen to me. I still haven't found a woman who wants to live in a house filled with caskets and dead bodies. My mother died last year. She had been the perfect listener.
I'm just an undertaker. And I'm pretty much paid peanuts. These days, the guys in the suburbs direct funerals. They pretend they are more than morticians with embalming pumps and a basement full of casket models, and they make a lot more than peanuts. The best thing they have going for them in August is that they can afford air conditioning. There's a lot to be said for air conditioning—for the funeral home owner and for the mourners.
But most of my customers are Dodge Main widows. They get a small check from Chrysler to help pay for the funeral, and, if the deceased is a Vet, they get $43 from the V.A. to help pay for the headstone and a bugler and a couple of guys in V.F.W. caps with a flag to drape the coffin. Please don't misunderstand me, I dream of a military funeral for myself. But these women are—quite understandably—looking for the biggest ceremony I can come up with on their very thin dime. And, of course, they want air conditioning.
Father Seward and Father Rhinehart, well, actually most of the priests at St. Justine’s, will say a funeral Mass for free. They’ve taken a vow of poverty and they seem to try to follow it. But an envelope with a few Lincolns and an open invitation to visit the wake at Murphy's Pub will certainly ease any man's passage into heaven. That, and air conditioning.
So, a funeral is an expensive proposition, even at its cheapest.
Calling myself a funeral director will not make any of these women more likely to choose mahogany and blue silk for the guy whose lung cancer or bum liver is likely to make her and the kids paupers before Christmas. And, even if she chooses a big show, to be honest, I would probably try to talk her out of it. I make a decent living. And I'm proud of what I do.
But I'm not proud of that girl in my basement, or of what I may be asked to do. I've never countenanced deception, and I don't intend to start now. Right now all I want to do is hide in my office.
Most undertakers have fathers and grandfathers who were undertakers. From the time they could walk, they've played space cadet in the embalming room and Dracula in the casket room. They have owned a dark suit that fit them since they were ten. And they've all attended mortician school in some town in Texas or Kansas where they've learned to say bland, meaningless pleasantries to folks in pain. Maybe they've been taught how to countenance deception. I'm not sure.
My path was different. I was a medic at Omaha beach and, somehow—the wisdom of the Army or the crapshoot of history—I wound up tagging and burying the dead at Normandy as part of the 603rd Quartermasters. Made for a quiet war. But a dignified one. A war with no deception.
When I came home to Detroit in November of 1945, I went to talk with Simon Vanden who owned the Belgian home in St. Peter’s parish. I wasn't creeped out by a basement full of bodies, and Simon, who had lost his three sons in the Pacific, was looking for an heir, someone who would love the business the way he had.
Simon was proud to have an assistant who was responsible for the acres of white crosses at Normandy. I was desperate for a job.
My mother dyed my dress uniform black and replaced the gold buttons with black ones. I wore my dyed uniform for every funeral in 1947 and most of 48. At the after-Christmas sale at J.L. Hudson's in 1948, I bought my first black suit.
That was more than ten years ago.
I bought my own funeral home in 1954 in St. Justine’s parish, just north of St. Peter’s. Simon and I still share a hearse and collaborate on larger funerals. He's a widower, so we also have a quiet Anisette together on Sunday afternoons in the upstairs living room of his home.
I imagine, in a few years, I'll be running both homes. But, for now, I'm the one with Helen Reid’s body in my basement. Motherless. Barely ten. The first child I've ever had to embalm without Simon at my side to make it feel ordinary.
Vivian, the woman who does make-up and hair for me, is good, but I don't think even Vivian—and all the scarves in my wardrobe closet—can make an open casket possible for Helen. The child looks more like Normandy 1944 than Detroit 1959.
When I picked Helen up at the county coroner's shop at noon, the guys who loaded her said the inquest had found her death accidental. I have no idea how six reasonable people reached that conclusion. Maybe they were trying to be kind to her father or maybe they were a bunch of Catholics who didn't want to be responsible for sending her soul to hell. But, I've examined Helen's body and I can't believe her death was an accident. A suicide—yes. A murder—yes. But not an accident. To say that is to say that someone in this parish would have played at hanging her.
She was hung by the neck until dead. In the garage of her home. And she was there for several days before the Cunningham kid found her. Not reported missing by her father. The word is that he was away. At the Redstone missile plant in Alabama or some such crap, if the guys at Murphy's are to be believed. But that explains less than nothing.
Richard Reid says the kid was alone for three days. But, of course, any of the women on Chelsea Avenue would have taken her in in a heartbeat. For me, it just doesn't compute. A ten- year old girl. An accident? Of course, I don't know what anyone said at the inquest. I just have the rope burn on her neck. And the reality that she had hung so long she was almost decapitated by her own slight weight.
At 3 P.M., on the dot, the doorbell echoes through the house. I straighten my tie and button my black suit coat. The seventh black suit I've purchased from J.L. Hudson's. The temperature and humidity are both above ninety. I imagine Richard Reid will need me to be as formal in July as I would be in February.
But, of course, I am mistaken about everything.
Reid bursts through the door of my funeral home wearing a summer sport coat. His shirt collar is open and he wears no tie. "Is it possible for my daughter's body to be buried before sundown?"
"Before sundown?" I thought about the time required for embalming, make-up, hair, casketing, the notices, the funeral services. "No, that would be impossible."
"But we don't need anything. Helen and I don't need anything." He says, wiping his large white handkerchief across his brow. "Just the gravediggers and the grave."
Just the gravediggers and the grave. "Have you purchased a plot, Mr. Reid?"
"Yes, I have. Or, rather, Helen has inherited one from her mother's parents." Reid hands me a cemetery deed, the paper probably older than I am, to a plot in the Lafayette Street Cemetery, the tiny Jewish cemetery now swallowed by the Protestants at Elmwood.
"But…." I said, having no idea what to say next. "I'm not even sure I can bury someone in Lafayette Street. I'm a Catholic undertaker. I have no idea what might be required. What permit? What permissions?"
Reid seems to read my mind. "We're Jewish, Mr. Killoran. Not Martians. The gravediggers will be ready as soon as you can get Helen to Lafayette. Trust me. They will not bar you from entering the gates of the cemetery just because you are the Catholic undertaker."
Sunset. Sundown. I know Jewish people have some issue about sunset. But none of the rabbis I'd worked with at Normandy had ever talked about it. Why would they? And it's been six days since Helen died. Why would Richard Reid bury his daughter in such a rush?
"Let's go pick a box, Mr. Killoran. Cost is not an issue. I'd like something with pink. Something like her party dress."
Richard Reid took my arm and steered me toward the door of my basement as though he had been here a dozen times.
And I am mortified to say that I let him. That I sold him my best rosewood casket with pink organdy lining. And that I casketed Helen and transported her body to Lafayette without any more fuss. I was so grateful not to have had to run the embalming pump.
He and I were the only ones there when the gravediggers lowered the ropes. Richard Reid said something that might have been Hebrew, picked up a shovel, and shoveled the first dirt onto his daughter's coffin. He handed me the shovel and I did the same thing. A large shovel full of earth clattered against the rosewood. No concrete vault for Reid.
As I stood with the shovel in my hands, not knowing what to do with it, Reid walked away, looking as though he intended to walk for the rest of his life.
I stuck the shovel in the pile of freshly turned earth at my feet and drove the hearse back to St. Justine’s parish. My home was empty when I arrived. Empty without her. Empty without the crush of neighbors and gawkers I had feared would be part of her funeral. Empty without the Catholic funeral rituals I had planned for her in my mind.
I locked the front door, walked slowly up the stairs to my own living quarters, and poured myself an Anisette. I have just assisted Richard Reid with burying his daughter’s body. And it feels nothing like Normandy. There has been nothing noble about Helen’s burial.
I poured a second Anisette and turned on the television. Not yet sunset. Top of the news: the Dodge Main strike is entering its 59th day. And Hawaii has just been named the 50th State.
I have not murdered this child. I have merely swept her under the rug.
Copyright Sam Gaynor, 2014
All rights reserved. The moral right of the author has been asserted.