(Harper, On Sale 9/24/13)
That it had all been a lie shouldn’t come as any surprise, really.
And yet, the truth—a terrible, indisputable truth that unfolds line by blue ballpoint line, filling the pages of the black marble notebook—is somehow astonishing.
How did you never suspect it back then?
Or, at least, in the years since?
Looking back at the childhood decade spent in this house—an ornate, faded Second Empire Victorian mansion in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city—it’s so easy to see how it might have happened this way.
How it did happen this way.
There is no mistaking the evidence. No mistaking the distinct handwriting: a cramped, backhand scrawl so drastically different from the loopy, oversized penmanship so typical of other girls that age.
Of course it was different.
She was different from the other girls; tragically, dangerously different.
I remember so well.
I remember her, remember so many things about her: both how she lived and how she--
Footsteps approach, tapping up the wooden stairway to this cupola perched high above the third story mansard roofline, topped by wrought iron cresting that prongs the sky like a king’s squared-off crown.
“Hellooo-oo. Are you still up there?” calls Sandra Lutz, the realtor.
Where else would I be? Did you think I jumped out the window while you were gone?
Sandra had excused herself ten minutes ago after finally answering her cell phone. It had buzzed incessantly with incoming calls and texts as their footsteps echoed in one empty room after another on this final walk-through before the listing goes up this week.
The entire contents of the house are now in storage—with the exception of the rocker where Mother went undiscovered for weeks.
“I don’t think that chair is something you’d want to keep,” Sandra said in one of their many long-distance telephone conversations when the storage arrangements were being made.
Of course not. The corpse would have been crawling with maggots and oozing bodily fluids, staining the brocade upholstery and permeating it with the terrible stench of death.
Presumably, someone—surely not the lovely Sandra—tossed the desecrated rocking chair into a Dumpster.
Everything else was transported to the storage facility somewhere in the suburbs.
As for Mother herself…
I’d just as soon someone tossed her into a Dumpster, too.
But of course, the proper thing to do was arrange, also long distance, for a cremation.
“We have a number of packages,” Glenn Cicero, the undertaker, said over the phone, after remarking that he remembered Mother from all the years she worked part time at Russo’s Drugstore as a pharmacy clerk.
“Packages? She’s not just in one…urn? How many are there?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I was talking about funeral packages. It just depends on how you want to set up visitation hours and—“
“No visitation. I live almost five hundred miles away, and I can’t get up there just yet, and…there’s no one else.”
Pause. “There are no other family and friends here in the Buffalo area who might want to—?“
“No one else.”
“All right, then.” He went over the details, mentioning that there would be an additional seventy-five dollar charge for shipment of the ashes.
“Can you just hold onto—“ It? Her? What was the proper terminology, aside from the profane terms so often used to refer to Mother—though never to her face--back when she was alive?
“The remains?” Cicero supplied delicately.
“Yes…can you hold onto the remains until I can come in person?”
“When would that be?”
“Sometime this summer. I’m selling the house, so I’ll be there to make the final arrangements for that.”
The undertaker dutifully provided instructions on how to go about retrieving what was left of the Dearly Departed when the time came.
The time is now here, but of course there will be no trip to Cicero and Son Funeral Home. Mother’s ashes can sit on a dusty shelf there for all eternity.
As for the contents of this old house…
“I’m sure you won’t want to go through it all just yet,” Sandra Lutz said earlier, handing over the rental agreement, with the monthly payments automatically deducted from Mother’s checking account, and a set of keys to the storage unit. “Not when the loss is so fresh. But empty houses are much more appealing to buyers, and this way, at least,
we can get the home on the market.”
Yes. The sooner this old place is sold, the better. As for the padlocked compartment filled with a lifetime of family furniture and mementos…
Good riddance to all of it.
Well…not quite all.
Right before she answered her phone, Sandra took a Ziploc bag from her pebbled black leather Dooney & Bourke satchel.
“These are some odds and ends I came across after the moving company and cleaning service had finished in here. I didn’t want to just throw anything away, so…here you go.”
The bag contained just a few small items. A stray key that had been hanging on a high nail just inside the cellar stairway door, most likely fitting the lock on a long gone trunk or tool chest. A dusty mass card from a forgotten cousin’s funeral, found tucked behind a cast iron radiator in the front parlor. A tarnished, bent silver fork that had been wedged in the space behind the silverware drawer.
And then there was…
The notebook, with a string of pink glass rosary beads wrapped around it twice, as if to seal it closed.
According to Sandra Lutz, the notebook, unlike the other relics, hadn’t been accidentally overlooked. Someone had deliberately hidden it in one of the old home’s many concealed nooks.
“I stumbled across it last night when I stopped by to double-check the square footage of the master bedroom,” she reported. “I noticed that there was a discrepancy between the measurements I took a few weeks ago and the old listing from the last time the house sold, back in the late seventies.”
“What kind of discrepancy?”
“The room was two feet longer back then. Sure enough, that’s exactly the depth of the secret compartment I found behind a false wall by the bay window. I was wondering whether you even knew it was there, because—“
“The house is full of secret compartments. My father always said that they were used to hide slaves on the underground Railroad.”
“That’s the rumor about a lot of houses in this neighborhood. Probably because we’re just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, and there was considerable Underground Railroad activity in western New York. But I don’t think this would have been an actual safe house.”
“Because historical documentation shows that there just weren’t very many of them in Buffalo. Slavery was abolished in New York State years before the Civil War started, so escaped slaves who made it this far either stayed and lived openly, or they were taken from rural safe houses into the city and directly across the border crossing at Squaw Island.”
Sandra added quickly, as if to soothe any hard feelings from her announcement that the home hadn’t served some noble historic cause, “I’ve always admired this house though, and wondered what it looked like inside. Did I mention that this is my old stomping grounds? I grew up a few blocks away, and I just moved back to the neighborhood.”
Yes, Sandra mentioned that over the phone several times, and in email, too. She also had no qualms about sharing that she’s a recent divorcee living alone for the first time in her life.
“I bought a fabulous Arts and Crafts home on Wayside Avenue, just down the street from Sacred Sisters High School,” she prattled on, as if she were revealing the information for the first time. “Not that I went to Sisters, even though it was right in the neighborhood; I went to Griffin instead.”
Ah, Griffin Academy: the upscale all-girls Catholic boarding school. No surprise there.
“Anyway, when I saw the house on Wayside come on the market, I snatched it up. It might not be as big or as old as this one, and it doesn’t have any secret compartments, but it does have all the original—“
“The notebook--what were you saying about finding the notebook?”
“Oh. Sorry. I guess I tend to ramble.”
If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a motor mouth.
Sandra shrugged. “I was just going to point out that the secret compartment where I found it was different.”
That was when Sandra’s phone rang. She checked the Caller ID, said, “Excuse me, but I have to take this one,” and disappeared down the steps.
Now she’s back.
And now that I’ve seen what’s in that notebook, I really need to know what she meant about “different.”
“Sorry about that. I thought that call was only going to take a minute.” Slightly winded from the climb, Sandra adds, “Those stairs and my asthma are not getting along today! Oh, it’s warm up here, isn’t it?”
The windows are open, but there’s not a breath of cross breeze to diminish the greenhouse effect created by four walls of glass on a ninety-degree July afternoon.
Looking not the least bit overheated, Sandra fans herself with a manila folder-- gently, though, so as not to send a hair out of place. A perfumed, expertly made-up fortysomething blonde wearing a trim black suit, hose, and high-heeled pumps, she’s probably never broken a sweat outside the gym nor had a bad hair day in her life.
When she introduced herself, she pronounced her first name as if it rhymed with Sondra. Most locals would say it Say-and-ra, the western New York accent stretching it out to three syllables with a couple of distinct flat a’s. Not her.
“I’m Sahndra,” she said as she stepped out of her silver Mercedes on the driveway to shake hands. Heat shimmered off the blacktop, yet her bony fingers were icy, with a firm, businesslike grip. “It’s so nice to finally meet you in person. How was the drive in last night?”
“The drive?” Oh, so we’re doing the small talk thing. Let’s get it over with. “It was fine.”
“Did you come alone, or bring your family?”
Is she fishing for information, or did I tell her I have a family?
There had been so many questions through their two months of long distance phone calls and emails, it was difficult to keep track of what Sandra had been told—truth, and lies.
“I came alone.”
“It’s about nine hours, isn’t it, from Huntington Station?”
Huntington Station. Not Long Island, not Nassau County, not even just Huntington, but Huntington Station. So damned specific.
“I went to college in the Bronx, at Fordham,” Sandra mentioned, “and my boyfriend back then was from Long Island. Levittown. A nice Irish boy—Patrick Donnelly…?”
She paused, as if to ask, Do you know him?
Question met with a cursory head-shake, she went on, “Well, anyway, I know exactly where you live.”
She has the address, of course, to which she’s been Fed-Exing paperwork for a couple of months now.
Sandra went on to inquire about the suburban Marriott she had recommended for this weekend stay. After being assured that the room was satisfactory, she said, “Be sure and tell the front desk manager, if you see her, that I referred you. Her name is Lena.”
“Friend of yours?” I’ll be sure to steer clear.“Oh, I’ve never met her, but she’s a dear friend of a client’s sister.”
And so it became clear early on that Sandra Lutz is the kind of woman who not only tends to ramble on and make dreary small talk, but she also remembers the most mundane details about people she meets in passing. That characteristic probably serves her very well when it comes to her line of work, but otherwise…
Someone really should warn her that sometimes it’s not a good idea to pay so much attention to other people’s lives.
Sometimes, people like—people need—to maintain more of a sense of privacy.
“I try not to take calls when I’m with a client,” Sandra says breezily now, pocketing her cell phone, “but that was an accepted offer for a house that’s only been on the market for a week. I thought it would be a hard sell, but it looks like this is my
client’s lucky day. And mine, too. Let’s hope all this good fortune rubs off on you. Now that we’re finished looking the place over, we can—“
“Wait. When you said the compartment was different, what, exactly, did you mean?”
Sandra’s bright blue eyes seem startled at, then confused by, the abrupt question.“Pardon?”
“When you found the notebook behind the wall--“Careful, now. Calm down. Don’t let her see how important this is to you— “you said the compartment was different.”
“Oh, that’s right. I meant that it wasn’t original to the house. Here, let’s go downstairs and I’ll show you what I mean.”
She leads the way down the steep flight to a noticeably cooler, narrow corridor lined with plain whitewashed walls and closed doors. Behind them are a bathroom with ancient fixtures, a couple of small bedrooms that once housed nineteenth century
servants, and some large storage closets that are nearly the same size as the bedrooms, all tucked above the eaves with pairs of tall, arched dormers poking through the slate mansard roof.
The third floor hasn’t been used in decades, perhaps not even when the second-tolast owners, a childless couple, lived here.
When Mother and Father bought the house, they found that first two floors were plenty large enough for two; large enough, even for four.
And then there were three…
No. Don’t think about that.
Just find out where the notebook was hidden, and how much Sandra Lutz knows about what’s written in it.
Down they go, descending another steep flight to the second floor. Here, the hallway is much wider than the one above, with high ceilings, crown moldings, and broad windowed nooks on either end. A dark green floral runner stretches along the oak floor and the wallpapered walls are studded with elaborate sconces that were, like most light fixtures throughout the house, converted from gas to electricity after the turn of the last century.
“The same thing was probably done in my house,” Sandra comments as they walk along the hall, “but I’d love to go back to gaslights. Of course, the inspector who checked it out before I got the mortgage approval nearly had a heart attack when I mentioned that. He said the place is a firetrap as it is. Old wiring, you know—the whole thing needs to be upgraded. It’s the same in this house, I’m sure.”
The mid-segment of the hall opens up with an elaborately carved wooden railing along one side. This is the balcony of the grand staircase—that’s what Sandra likes to call it, anyway—that leads down to the entrance hall. Or foyer. (Pronounced foy-yay by Sandra-rhymes-with-Sondra.) Realtors, apparently, tend to embellish.
The master bedroom at the far end of the hallway isn’t large by today’s standards. And it isn’t a suite by any stretch of the imagination, lacking a private bath, dressing room, walk-in closet…
But that, of course, is what Sandra Lutz calls it as she opens the door for the second time today: The master suite.
The room does look bigger and brighter than it did years ago, when it was filled with dark, heavy furniture and long draperies shielding the windows. Now bright summer sunlight floods the room, dappled by the leafy branches of a towering maple in the front yard.
A faint hint of Mother’s cloying talcum powder and Father’s forbidden pipe tobacco seems to waft in the air, but it might very well be imagined.
The lone floor lamp, plugged into an electronic timer that will turn it on for a few hours every evening, was Sandra’s idea. There’s one downstairs in the living room, too.
“You don’t want to advertise that the house is empty,” she said.
“Why not? There’s nothing here to steal.”
“Yes, but you don’t want to tempt kids or vandals to break in.”
I really don’t care.
“Here.” Sandra walks over to the far end of the room, indicating the decorative paneling on the lower wall adjacent to the bay window. “This is what I was talking about. See how this wainscot doesn’t match the rest of the house? Everywhere else, it’s more formal, with raised panels, curved moldings, beaded scrolls. But this is a recessed panel—mission style, not Victorian. Much more modern. The wood is thinner.”
She’s right. It is.
“And this--” She knocks on the maroon brocade wallpaper above it, exactly the same pattern but noticeably less faded than it is elsewhere in the room—“isn’t plaster like the other walls in the house. It’s drywall. Did you know that?”
There wasn’t even wainscoting on that end of the room years ago. Obviously, someone—Father?--rebuilt the wall and added the wainscoting, then repapered it using one of the matching rolls stored years ago on a shelf in the dirt-floored cellar.
“There’s a spot along here…” Sandra reaches toward the panels, running her fingertips along the molding of the one in the middle. She presses down, and it swings open. “There. There it is. See?”
Dust particles from the gaping dark hole behind the panel dance like glitter into sunbeams falling through the bay windows.
“Like I said, it’s about two feet deep. I wish I had a flashlight so that I could show you, but…see the floor in there? It’s refinished, exactly like this.”
She points to the hardwoods beneath their feet. “In the rest of the house, the hidden compartments have rough, unfinished wood. So obviously, this cubby space was added in recent years—it must have been while your family owned the house, because as I said, the room was two feet longer when it was listed by the previous owner.”
“When you opened the panel, was there…was this all that was inside?”
“The notebook?” Sandra nods. “That was it. It was just sitting on the floor in there, wrapped in the rosary. I gave it to you just the way I found it. I figured it might be some kind of diary or maybe a prayer journal…?”
The question hangs like the dust particles in the air between them and then falls away, answered only by the distant whistle of a passing freight train.
Predictably, Sandra waits only a few seconds before filling the awkward pause. “I just love old houses. So much character. So many secrets.”
Sandra, you have no idea. Absolutely no idea.
“Is there anything else you wanted to ask about this or…anything?”
“No. Thank you for showing me.”
“You’re welcome. Should I…?” She gestures at the wainscot panel.
Sandra pushes the panel back into place, and the hidden compartment is obscured—but not forgotten, by any means.
Does the fact that the realtor speculated whether the notebook is a diary or prayer journal mean she really didn’t remove the rosary beads and read it when she found it?
Or is she trying to cover up the fact that she did?
I can’t take any chances. Sorry, Sandra. You know “exactly” where I live…now it’s my turn to find out the same about you.
That shouldn’t be hard.
An online search of recent real estate transactions on Wayside Avenue should be sufficient.
How ironic that Sandra Lutz had brought up Sacred Sisters’ proximity to her new house before the contents of the notebook had been revealed. In that moment, the mention of Sacred Sisters had elicited nothing more than a vaguely unpleasant memory
of an imposing neighborhood landmark.
Now that I know what happened there…
The mere thought of the old school brings a shudder, clenched fists, and a resolve for vengeance. That Sandra Lutz lives nearby seems to make her, by some twisted logic, an accessory to a crime that must not go unpunished any longer.
They descend the so-called grand staircase to the first floor. Here, a faint mildewed smell permeates the musty air, courtesy of the damp cellar below. It’s always been prone to flooding thanks to a frequently clogged drain. Earlier, Sandra needlessly
pointed out that a vapor barrier, French drain system, and even new roof gutters would help.
I’m sure it would. But that’s somebody else’s problem.
“Shall we go out the front door or the back?” Sandra asks.
It’s closer to the rental car. The need to get out of this old house with its unsettling secrets and lies is growing more urgent by the second.
“I thought you might like to take a last look around before—“
“No, thank you.”
“All right, front door it is. I never really use it at my own house,” Sandra confides as she turns a key sticking out of the double-cylinder deadbolt and opens one of the glasswindowed double doors. “I have a detached garage and the back door is closer to it, so that’s how I come and go.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake, who cares?
“You know, your mother just had these locks installed about a year ago. She was upset after your dad passed away and so afraid to be alone at night.”
Mother? Upset that Father passed away?
Mother, afraid to be alone?
Mother, afraid of anything at all—other than the wrath of God or Satan?
I don’t think so.
“What makes you assume that?”
“It’s not an assumption,” Sandra says defensively, stepping out onto the stoop and holding the door open. “Bob Witkowski told me that’s what she said.”
“Bob Witkowski. You know Al Witkowski, the mover? He lives right around the corner now, on Redbud Street, in an apartment above the dry cleaner’s. His wife divorced him awhile back and took him for everything he had.”
Oh, for the love of…
“Anyway, Bob is Al’s younger brother. He’s a locksmith. I had him install these same double-cylinder deadbolts in my house when I first moved in, because I have windows in my front door, too. You can’t be too careful when you’re a woman living
alone—I’m sure your mother knew that.”
The wheels are turning, turning, turning…
Stomach churning, churning, churning at the memory of Mother.
Mother, who constantly quoted the Ten Commandments, then broke the eighth with a lie so mighty that surely she’d lived out the rest of her days terrified by the prospect of burning in hell for all eternity.
“A lock like this is ideal for an old house with original glass-paned doors, because the only way to open it, even from the inside, is with a key,” Sandra is saying as she closes the door behind them and inserts the same key into the outside lock. “No one can just break the window on the door and reach inside to open it. Some people leave the key right in the lock so they can get out quickly in an emergency, but that defeats the purpose, don’t you think? I keep my own keys right up above my doors, sitting on the little ledges of molding. It would only take me an extra second to grab the key and get out if there was a fire.”
The place is a firetrap…
“Of course, now that it’s summer, I keep my windows open anyway, so I guess that fancy lock doesn’t do much for me, does it? I really should at least fix the broken screen in the mudroom. Anyone could push through it and hop in.”
It’s practically an invitation.
Stupid, stupid woman.
Sandra gives a little chuckle. “Good thing this is still such a safe neighborhood, right?”
Yes, and thanks to Sandra’s incessant babble, a plan has taken shape.
A plan that, if one were inclined to fret about breaking the Ten Commandments-- which I most certainly am not--blatantly violates the fifth.
Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Oh, but I shall.
It won’t be the first time.
And surely, it won’t be the last.