“So Dickhead Dave had me in the basement breaking down a brick wall that had been put up God knows when, and I was bustin’ a hole through it when this really stale smell came out, like a dead animal like except even more than that, like, really dead. I lit up a smoke to cover the smell and kept swingin’ and the hole got bigger. I shined my flashlight in and you wouldn’t fuckin’ believe me in a thousand years…you know what was in there? A skeleton.”
Jay loves to talk, and this is his best story yet. This skeleton behind a brick wall is fantastically good material for some future story and, as a writer, I’m always interested in new material. I’m already very good at bringing people to life on the page because I’m a keen observer of the human condition. Once at an intimate gathering, I read a short story of mine that included a description of a grandmother stroking her cat that so evoked the peacefulness of grandparenthood that the lady who brought a pie to the reading came up to me afterwards and told me that it reminded her so much of her grandmother that she almost cried.
“And that’s not all,” Jay runs his hand through his filthy hair, takes a swig of the coffee I made for him and puffs on his smoke, “it wasn’t just fuckin’ human bones, there was an old bottle—some kind of fancy stuff, 1950’s vintage Cognac, don’t remember the name, started with an ‘A’. I couldn’t stay there long. The whole thing spooked me.”
“That’s unbelievable! What did you do?”
“I called Dickhead Dave who doesn’t know shit about his house and told him, and he called the police and they’re down there now.”
“Did he know who this person was? Was there a murder?”
“He don’t know shit just like he don’t know shit about renovation but that don’t stop him from spending a quarter of a million bucks on the house, stripping it bare and re-doing it. The guy buys a bunch of toy stores, makes a fortune and then buys a million dollar townhouse in Georgetown, thinks he knows what he’s doin’. He strips the house and plays Mr. General Contractor, giving me shit about things he don’t know anything about and doesn’t pay me cause he’s doing this on his credit card, and he’s cheap. So what happens to Dickhead? A skeleton turns up in this house, and the cops shut the place down—boom—crime scene, serves him right.”
I get up from the stoop in front of my house to look down the street and, sure enough, there are police cars and yellow crime scene tape.
“That’s amazing, Jay. So you got some time? I have a bunch of small jobs here. You can finish the light switches and plates. You know how to do those, right?”
“Sure, my friend, anything for you. I followed my dad around for years. He could fix anything and everything. Not like this guy with his millions bucks, Mr. Know-It-All about houses, telling me what to do. My dad did beautiful work. I learned at his side. So I know what I’m doing. I’ll do you right. I’m gonna’ head out and pick up some brass screws for your fixtures, make ‘em look all nice.”
Our regular morning conversations are always good material for my writing, but this is the best one of all. I go to research further and, after several hours of reading real estate records online, I locate a Mr. and Mrs. R who lived at 1519 33rd in the 50’s—this might be the couple!
My deep detective work is interrupted with some clanging downstairs. Jay is back. He’s leaning over the light switch, installing new brass plates with the right screws. He’s tall and lanky and looks like a worn-down version of a famous Hollywood star. His hair is greying, long, and dirty, his mustache is neglected and unkempt and climbing down over his upper lip, and his skin has deep grooves from the sun and the smoking.
“Jay, I found the names of the former owners!” And I fill him in.
“Oh yeah? Hey maybe the husband got rid of the wife, you know, got tired of her—talkin’ about gettin’ tired, I just saw the Brit Blonde in the street and told her about it. I think she’s sick of her old man. He might be sicka her too. God is she gorgeous and that’s some body. She’s always callin’ me to come over and talk about this little thing or that little thing in her kitchen. She’s renovating but don’t know what she wants. I think she’s tired of her old man. the kids are at school, and she wants me to come over but, you know, you gotta be careful with these rich girls. I know she wants me over there, who knows. She’s so gorgeous. I been doin’ a bunch of work for her.”
“So you’re making good money there? That’ll help with this whole skeleton thing now that you can’t work at Dave’s.”
“Oh, she don’t pay, always some reason, some excuse. Her husband’s loaded. You should see the suits on him, sleepin’ in the tannin’ bed—Mr. fuckin’ Alltanned Crispsuit! She’s sick of him, though. I’m sure. That’s why I’m over there all the time now, I think she’s hittin’ the sauce a bit—the expensive stuff too. But he can’t have HER leave HIM—he’d lose his loot in the divorce. Man is she gorgeous. Who knows what’s gonna happen, you know?”
Even though Jay is filthy, it’s clear that women in this wealthy neighborhood must find him very sexy. He’s a working class Casanova with rugged good looks, and she’s—and she is, I’ve seen her—a beautiful blonde from England, unhappily married and looking for some afternoon delight. This is the basic outline of the romance novel I’m working on but it’s not as interesting as this new true crime idea about a skeleton behind a brick wall.
My online detective work absorbs me well into the evening. I’ve watched a lot of cop shows so I successfully deduce that the most probable cause for this crime is an acrimonious divorce and, after a search of public divorce filings, there it is: the divorce decree of Mr. and Mrs R—and the cause listed was ‘abandonment’. The Mrs. abandoned the Mr., or did she? I wonder. After my successful sleuthing I realize that I really could become passionate about writing a crime novel and those sell well. The romance stuff is just so obvious like the Jay-and-the-Blonde-Brit-budding-romance-because-the-marriage-bores-her story. I’ll write true crime; it’s clearly my passion. I’ll produce a classic like In Cold Blood and recount how the idea for the novel began with my handyman discovering a skeleton in the house he was renovating. This will make for fascinating interviews on morning news shows and critics will write that I delve into human psychology and the loneliness of America when I describe how this woman was murdered and left alone behind a brick wall in her basement. Alienation from one another—even in marriage—could be another theme. I’ll write true crime but my work will have layers from which the astute reader can gain deeper insight into our humanity, or lack thereof, though the average Joe and Betty will still call it a ‘page-turner.’
Early the next day, I tell Jay what I had found when he ambles over to the front of the house and sits down next to the coffee I put out for him. Since it is 9 a.m., the dirt and dust of work have only begun to accumulate on his skin and jeans.
“Hey, well, probably the husband did it! That’s what happens with these rich people, buddy. They get sick of each other. Money can’t buy love, and then—boom! The police took the skeleton out last night and all the evidence, that bottle of cognac or whatever and other stuff so it’s back to work. Anyways, you won’t believe this. Dickhead Dave has these Salvadorian guys he hired, must be fifteen of them, all on the roof workin’ up there, no harnesses. So old Dave, what does he do? He puts all their crap exactly where I have to work, didn’t ask me or nothin’. He’s piled up tons of boxes and containers and tools right where I gotta do the brickwork. Who’s gonna’ move that stuff? Not the Salvadorians, not Dave. Guess who? Me. I gotta’ fuckin’ do all that shit on top of all the other shit he has me doin’. Runnin’ around gettin’ this and gettin’ that. Then he changes his mind and it’s the other thing he wants it all done right away, though he don’t know what he wants.”
“Has he paid you yet?”
“Are you kidding! He’ll pay those Salvadorians long before me ‘cause they’re like twenty of them. He don’t know what he’s doin’ but he thinks he does, worst kind. My old man knew every single aspect of construction and fixin’ up a house. He was a master craftsman! I followed him around and that’s how I know how to do all this. That’s how I know Dave, you know. My old man completely renovated his uncle’s big old Georgian style house in Matthews County on the East River down in Virginia near where I got my CRX that I’m workin’ on in my friend’s garage. He re-did the stables, the old carriage house, apartment above the garage, the porch looked beautiful like it had in the 1850’s, he put old wooden shingles on the roof by hand, classic. My old man was a master craftsman and that house was a masterpiece. I did the whole thing with him, learned it all. Guess what? the fucker, Dickhead’s uncle, who owned it kept payin’ him only a little here a little there. Long after he and his rich wife and fat kids had moved in and were throwin’ parties, my dad had to keep comin’ back to ask for the money he was owed, even after he got sick. My old man was still owed some money by that cheap rich asshole when that cancer shit finally killed him.”
“Has the Blonde Brit paid up at least?”
“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me about her? And I need $15,000 to finish the work on my CRX so I can get outta here and go race it and then I need more money to live, you know, I’m dreamin’ all the time of that. She’s callin’ me all the time, wants to talk about this window in the kitchen, then how she wants hooks here, then changes her mind about the tiles after I run out and find the exact kind she wants. You know what? She wants me there. She really is good lookin’, though, I gotta be careful but who knows. I’m over there all the time, know what I mean? I could really use that money too!”
The dog walking hour has arrived. The sidewalks fill up with pooches on leashes leading their owners from tree to tree. As if on cue, the Brit Blonde appears around the corner, her two yapping Chihuahuas shaking their nubby tails with violent enthusiasm. She passes Jay on the sidewalk. She really is beautiful—blonde salon hair, manicured face, yoga-shaped body—he’s a lucky, lucky guy. When he sees her, he looks up and cocks two-fingers at her like a gunslinger’s pistol and shifts legs on his pointed brown cowboy boots speckled with paint. She smirks from behind her large designer sunglasses then looks back down at her phone as her two little dogs yank her forward in breathless excitement, tongues wagging, eyes bulging. Jay and the Brit are playing it cool so that the neighbors don’t suspect anything, but I know better. Most people would see two strangers who barely acknowledge each other or a woman showing a complete lack of interest in an unkempt stranger who is clearly below her social class. I make a mental note of this scene to help increase the sexual tension in my novel. To create a more vivid visual, I take a good long look at the Blonde Brit walking down the sidewalk, her behind and legs wrapped in skin-tight black yoga pants that show with each curve her full commitment to fitness and her enormous amounts of spare time. I’ll have to describe this in more sensual, fleshy language but for now I just make a mental video of her body moving so I can replay the scene later and find the exact words that will heat up the page.
After lunch, I’m walking down the sidewalk to the gym. I near 1519, the townhouse Jay is renovating. Dave is talking animatedly at Jay who by now has accumulated enough dust and grime so that his skin is greyish and blends with his grey stringy hair and bushy mustache. Now only his eyes have any color—even his eyelashes are grey from the dust. Dave is squat with cotton summer shorts and a rumpled but clean white cotton shirt and new Dockers. His legs are hairy and thick. His hands are fat, and he wears a large watch with numerous crowns to set all kinds of times and which say, “I’m a businessman, and I have lots of places to be.” His rust-colored hair tops his whole compact body, and he is levelling a steady fire of renovation jargon at Jay whose shoulders are slumped, eyes fixed on the sidewalk, and who is neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
As if in a scene unfolding in my novel, the Brit Blonde walks up clutching the arm of Alltanned Crispsuit. He has on a blue summer blazer, a crisp white shirt, khakis and loafers; most of all, his skin is a perfect shade of tan with an even tone and a creamy texture. He holds his head high, the Incarnation of success and beyond all worry and tedium. His wife has dressed to his satisfaction with a light blue summer dress showing enough of her athletic thighs and calves to let you know how lucky her man is. Her feet are slipped into single strapped summer sandals with faux jewelry—something light and breezy to finish off the picture and each toe shows the recent work of the finest Vietnamese salon workers. Still if you look closely, wrinkles and extra flesh are appearing at crucial points on her body. She seems to cling to Alltanned Crispsuit and keeps looking up adoringly at him. When she isn’t looking, his pupils slide into the far right corners of his eyes to get a good look at a young yoga gal as she jogs by holding her rolled up mat, her shapely body sweating and swaying with each stride.
I step back to take in the four main characters—this scene could be central to my new novel by shedding light on the inner lives of these characters as they interact on the street.
Dave interrupts his verbal barrage and bluntly asks Brit Blonde with a smile, “So this hump works for you too?” pointing at Jay. She shoots a look at Alltanned Crispsuit who stands erect and silent with a smirk on his face, and she answers, “Yes, he does. Just a few things around the house, nothing important,” waving her hand at Jay dismissively and then planting a hard kiss on her husband’s cheek. Alltanned Crispsuit and Jay exchange a look as though they knew each other better than expected, and he pats Jay on the back like a coach congratulates a player or, maybe, like a farmer who is pushing his mule forward. Jay lifts his head a little, showing his filthy grey face, and gives a crooked smile full of blackened and broken teeth, his shoulders rising and falling a few times. He looks back down at the sidewalk. The Brit Blonde smiles broadly to support her husband’s joking acknowledgement of Jay. Her teeth are bright white, each tooth ends at the same length as the one next to it, there are no gaps between them, and her lips are moist. She radiates like a gold-plated Bentley on a sunny day in front of a newly-renovated Georgetown townhouse and a bed of flowers in full bloom. For a moment, I think that the Blonde and Jay have no relationship whatsoever. They sure are disguising the truth well from Alltanned Crispsuit.
The scene ends quickly as the beautiful couple continues down the sidewalk to some fantastic destination.
I resume my walk to the gym and look back. Jay is sitting on a low wall, slumped over while Dave looms over him, blasting him with suggestion after suggestion of what he now wants done to his house, and when, and how.
During the workout I realize what I need to do: I will fuse the romantic novel with a true crime story. The protagonist will be working class, his lover a rich stunner who hungers for him. In their lovemaking, his dirt will get on her flawless body giving those scenes a more visceral feel.
On the way back from the gym through the half-light of evening, I come upon a totally unexpected scene in front of 1519. Dave is gone. Now, instead, Alltanned Crispsuit has both hands on Jay’s shoulder and is staring intensely at him. Jay does not even turn to look at me as I walk by—something he always does—and Mr. Crispsuit hands him an envelope which he takes. I strain to listen at what is being said; this isn’t polite but I might get important information that will help give the plot layers.
I hear Alltanned Crispsuit say, “…cheap fan, three bits, a saw. Need all that so…got that?” That’s not very interesting but what’s odd is I could swear I actually hear him say, “…she can’t resist Amantillado Cognac.”
I puzzle over this at home but can’t figure it out. I am leaving town for two weeks so I pack my spiral notebook and laptop which hold these great ideas for my true crime romance novel. I’m thinking of calling it, “Light and Shade”—just a working title for now.
For two weeks I work on the novel off and on during the business trip. I write out several scenes, especially the ‘hot’ ones which will be so important for connecting to the public. By the time I’m back I’m frustrated because the plot doesn’t seem to go anywhere despite these vivid scenes. Once the working class guy is doing it with the hot rich blonde woman, and they are sneaking around disguising their affair, then what? If they elope, it’s just a romance novel in which a working class man in jeans will be on the cover with a blonde ripping off his shirt and exposing his pecs under the raised letters, Light and Shade. But then there is no crime, no darker exploration of the human psyche, no philosophical insights about dreams and reality, hope and humiliation, promises and revenge, which would bring me the reputation of a writer of substance beyond what is sold in an airport newsstand.
One morning, I hear sirens. There is a commotion in front of 1519. The Salvadorians have massed around Dave and are shouting at him in Spanish, and he is shouting back. Jay isn’t around. The policemen walk up and stand between the parties. The Salvadorians are sweating and determined to get their $15,000. Dave is besieged. The policemen tell Dave that they have come because someone called in an anonymous tip that there is a body in the house. Dave tells the policemen “that was several weeks ago and the skeleton was removed,” and that, “the cash that had been dropped off for him to pay them has been stolen. No one knew about the money except Jay, but he hasn’t been around since I canned him ‘cause he couldn’t hack the job; he probably went back in Virginia.”
The squabbling continues with the parties separated by policemen. Two policemen tell Dave he’s going to have to come to the station tomorrow for further questioning, and that they will bring a crew to search the house because of the tip—whether it’s an old tip or not, they have to do it. For now, the work on the house will have to stop. They take down some numbers from the Salvadorians and tell them they will be in touch and give them a card for the precinct. Before they leave, they cordon off the sidewalk with yellow crime scene tape
The novel’s story continues to unfold. On my way to the dry cleaners I pass the new expensive brunch place Le Napoleon, and who’s in there? Alltanned Crispsuit. He is sitting real close to a young woman who looks like she walked off a beach in a European magazine’s photo shoot. He has wrapped her slender hands with his confident fingers and is staring deeply into her. She is entranced and smiling. They are seated at a table for two—no sign of the Brit. This is an interesting turn of events especially when you consider the ‘For Sale’ sign that now stands in front of Alltanned Crispsuit’s house
I mull over all the facts of the last weeks and consider the shape of my novel. There are some really good moments, but I can’t put the pieces together. If I could, it would be ‘hot’, gritty, and philosophical. I can’t quite get there, and so I sit on my couch in the dark. I text Jay, asking him what’s up, where is he, has he heard about the Salvadoreans and Dave? I’ve got something to tell you about Alltanned Crispsuit, I add.
My perplexity propels me off the couch and down the block. I’m being drawn like a character in a movie who goes voluntarily into a spooky place. I arrive outside 1519, deftly slip under the yellow tape, and push the battered black door which squeaks open. The moonlight shines through the dirty windows giving the inside the same grey shades that Jay wore throughout his work day. Decades of living have been peeled away leaving this bare darkness and a smell of expiration. The ghosts of the past are everywhere, their voices are dust specs floating in the air. This is an excellent final scene for my novel.
The wooden stairs go up to an attic stripped to its original brick and beams with black soot from a fire back in 1815. I stand in the middle of the attic. Is this where I will find the key, the deepest point, the mysterious clue that will pull my novel together? I listen and let my brain be open to the answer. Nothing comes. I go back down the creaking steps and outside.
Below the back stairs, there is a door ajar. This must be the basement where the skeleton had been found. I step down into the same grey, the same dust. Nothing is left that I can see of a crime scene. The light on my phone flashes with a message that lights up the penumbra: “Hey buddy, back in va with the crx. everything’s settled. too bad about dickhead. haha! guess the brit’s gone for good too…thanks for the work, buddy, and don’t become a prick like the others up there, jay.”
I take one look around the basement. I hear some scurrying—must be rats—so I exit and head back out into the street.
Walking home, I realize I am no closer to pulling my novel together. Visiting the old, dark house has been an unexpected thrill but didn’t answer the deep question. In fact, it added one more puzzling detail. Jay and the police had broken down a brick wall in the small basement behind which they had found a skeleton. But when I was down there I didn’t see any masonry debris. In fact, though the whole house had been stripped; there was what looked like a new brick wall, one so well done it could only have been put up by a master craftsman.
Hillary Chapman taught school for many years and then wrote four history books: Awakening: The story of religious turmoil and development in the town of Nayriz, Iran; based on oral memories and first-hand accounts. (Baha’i Publishing, Wilmette, IL, 2012). Abdu’l-Baha in New York: The story of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to New York City in 1912; also contains some social history of New York in that period. (Juxta Publishing, London, UK, 2012). The Calling: Tahirih of Persia and the Women of the Great Awakening: A detailed account of the little-known life of the mystic of Tahirih of Persia; told in episodes that are intertwined with stories from the lives of American women of the Great Awakening with some social history as background (IBEX Publishing, 2017). A Way out of No Way: The untold story of the Harlem Preparatory School: Based almost entirely on interviews, a brief history of one of the original alternative schools; contains some social history of New York City (Publisher TBD). Foreigner: The story told in vignettes of an immigrant from Iran who arrives in the US during the 1960s (George Ronald Publisher, Oxford, UK). Her story, “The Death of an Idealist,” was chosen as alternate by the Saturday Evening Post for best short fiction of 2016. In addition, she has written songs for the Nashville market and has had songs recorded by regional artists (www.reverbnation.com/hillarychapman) and has had poems published.