NOW AVAILABLE! The Crazy Old Lady's Revenge, Part 2 in my Beacon Hill Chronicles.
This story is 40,000 words - long enough to be a novel. Here is the beginning:
Crazy Old Lady's Revenge
BOSTON – City officials say that a body buried for close to twenty years under the terrace of a Beacon Hill townhouse has been removed and buried at Forest Hills Cemetery. Officials learned of the grave, which had been covered by a brick terrace, earlier this year from an heir of the recently deceased owner of the townhouse. When the new owner learned of the grave shortly after the death of Mrs. Kingsley (Louise) Thorndike, who passed away in May of this year at the age of ninety-one, she notified authorities. It is believed that the remains are those of Britta Falk, a Swedish immigrant who was a servant in the Thorndike household for many years. Why she was buried in the garden is unknown. Police had the body removed earlier this month and transported it to the Medical Examiner where an autopsy was performed. Despite being in a state of advanced decay Falk's death appeared to be the result of natural causes.
Mrs. Thorndike's heir, Matilda “Mattie” Thorndike Michaud, of Truro, Massachusetts, assumed the cost of a proper burial for her grandmother's former servant.
Now I wish I had never seen this article tucked in a corner of the Boston Herald. Now I wish I had never noticed Mattie Thorndike's name. We hadn't seen each other in close to twenty years. Now I wonder how many more deaths it will take to avenge that one – that one which should have been kept a secret forever. I should have minded my own business. It's not like I don't have enough problems of my own.
I met Mattie Thorndike when we were in first grade at a little private day school in Boston's Back Bay and, right from the beginning, we were best friends. Both of us had the dubious distinction of being raised by our grandparents. Mattie's parents had been killed in a car wreck a few months earlier and her grandmother, whom she called GrammyLou, brought her to Beacon Hill to live there in her townhouse. I never knew my father and had vague memories of my mother back then. My grandparents – I called them Papa and Nana – lived in Boston's Theater District on Washington Street over Papa's café. Papa came from Poland, but Nana had grown up in Boston and her cousin Stanford was married to GrammyLou's sister. I suppose it was inevitable that Mattie and I, being the same age, and virtually orphans, would become best friends.
Actually, I had a mother. Her name was Dianne and, on the rare occasions when I saw her, that was what I called her. She got pregnant with me when she was sixteen. She never said who my father was. Knowing what I know now, I wonder if she even knew. Despite all Nana's efforts, Dianne was always wild. My earliest memories are of screaming fights between Papa and Dianne while Nana cried and begged her to show him some respect. Throughout the first few years of my life it was Nana who took care of me. Nana held me and cuddled me, read to me, and tucked me in bed at night. Nana was the kindest, sweetest lady I ever knew. Papa adored her.
I have come to the conclusion that Dianne was jealous of Papa and Nana. I think that she felt shut out of their love for each other. Papa was fifteen years older than Nana and he worshiped her. Maybe he loved her so much that he didn't have any love left over for Dianne. Still, he has always been good to me.
I visit Papa several times a week. He lives in the same apartment I grew up in. Years ago he sold his recipes to a big corporation and made a lot of money doing it. He still owns the building and there is a deli where his café used to be. This is good because the owners are kind; they send him food when I can't get over there for awhile.
I worry about Papa. Ever since Nana died he has lost interest in life. He lives in one of the most interesting neighborhoods in one of the most interesting cities in America but he refuses to so much as go outside. I bring him groceries and cook for him but all he thinks about is Nana. It's sad really. If I've learned anything from him, it is that a person can love too much. Not long ago I suggested we get tickets for a show at the Boston Opera House.
“It's just down the street, Papa,” I said. “We can walk there in two minutes.”
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Marjorie wouldn't like that. I'm sorry, Vivienne, but no.”
“Papa, Nana wouldn't want you to spend the rest of your life in these rooms. How many times did you tell me about how you fell in love with her when she and her friends came into your café after the theater or a show? She loved the theater.”
“No,” he said, “she gave up everything for me. She was the dearest woman that ever lived.”
I've heard their story a hundred times. Papa's was the typical immigrant success story. He escaped from Poland in 1943 with the clothes on his back, his pockets full of recipes, and his head full of dreams. He was seventeen years old and all he knew how to do was bake the pastries his parents served in their restaurant before the war started. Once he got to Boston he began baking pastries and selling them off a cart in Haymarket Square. He changed his name from Jedrick Langowski to John Lang and, eventually, he made enough money to open his own café in the Theater District. It immediately became popular with theater-goers. He was always open – before and after matinees, and late into the night – which is how he met Nana.
Nana, whose name was Marjorie Emerson, was a beauty from an affluent Boston family. They weren't outrageously rich like Mattie's family but wealthy enough. Nana loved to tell about how she and her girlfriends would go to the theater and then stop in at Lang's Café and Pastries just so they could drool over the huge, handsome man who owned it. Nana said he was the most attractive man she ever met. I have seen their wedding pictures and I have to admit he was good-looking. It's hard for me to believe the tall, broad-shouldered groom in those photographs is the sad, old man I know now but I can certainly understand what she saw in him.
Naturally, Nana's mother had fits when she found out what was going on. Nana was only twenty and was supposed to be attending Simmons College but what she was really doing was sneaking down to the Theater District to hang out and flirt. Nana told me, with no small amount of pride, that once her father got to know Papa, he liked him. He told Nana's mother that Nana was better off marrying a hard-working immigrant than the spoiled, snotty boys she grew up with. Nana was twenty-two when they married. Papa was thirty-seven. They had my mother the following year. I don't know why they never had more kids but, given how much trouble Dianne gave them, it's probably just as well.
Now, after all that has happened, it seems a brutal irony that the house Mattie inherited, GrammyLou's townhouse, a place that I adored, has been the scene of so much horror and death. And Papa's apartment that I took so for granted all my life, an apartment I will inherit one day, has become my refuge from the world. Maybe someday I'll go back to my own condo in the North End but right now I'm as reclusive as Papa. He loves having me here. Sometimes he forgets who I am. I often wish I could forget who I am.
The first time I was invited to Mattie's house to play I was dazzled. Of course, I was only in first grade and had not been in many other children's homes. Growing up in Papa's four bedroom apartment with its twelve foot high windows overlooking Washington Street, I was used to big rooms and lots of light. When we visited Nana's family, most of whom lived in pleasant neighborhoods north of Boston, I thought it was quite astonishing, and a little bit scary, to be allowed to play outside. Nothing in my young life prepared me for GrammyLou's townhouse. Or for GrammyLou herself. The rooms seemed endless to me. They had high ceilings with pictures painted on them. Each room was filled with amazing things; paintings of ladies I thought must surely be queens and duchesses; fireplaces a six-year old could stand upright in; chandeliers that looked like upside-down, crystal Christmas trees; carpets into which my Mary-Janes disappeared. I remember Mattie and I stretched out on the carpet in GrammyLou's parlor with rainbows on our faces from the sunlight coming through the beveled glass windows. I thought it was a palace.
The five floors were connected by a perfect, wood-paneled elevator with an ornate brass grate that gleamed like gold. Sometimes Mattie and I would just sit on the floor of the elevator going up and down, up and down, up and down until Nell, GrammyLou's housekeeper, made us stop.
And then, of course, there was GrammyLou. She was, I thought, the most glamorous woman I had ever seen. She was not the classic beauty that my Nana was, but even at the age of six, I recognized elegance when I saw it. From that first visit I adored GrammyLou. To me she was everything refined and dignified in this world. I still remember her dressing in her Paris couture for dinner, even if she was only sharing it with me and Mattie. I watched in fascination as the light from the chandeliers sparkled off the diamonds of her rings, earrings, and necklaces. I watched how she used her utensils and how she seemed to pose gracefully between sentences when she spoke. I wanted to be just like her. I studied and memorized her every move and word.
I loved Mattie but I envied her as well. Now, when I try to imagine GrammyLou as an old woman, I cannot. When I try to imagine the rest of what I have learned about her, my imagination totally fails me. When I read that article in the Herald I still thought of GrammyLou as the queen I'd envisioned her as, which I guess is why I decided to walk over to Beacon Hill and see her house again.
I live on Fulton Street in a renovated warehouse. I bought the condo after Nana died and left me a generous inheritance. I'd been drifting around for years and Nana, afraid I would end up like my mother, wanted me to settle down. She wanted me to find a nice boy, marry him, have babies, but I don't see that happening. I'm a mess. Not the same kind of mess that my mother was. I'm my own kind of mess. But the condo is perfect for me. Whoever renovated these buildings had sense enough to leave the brick walls and wood floors and iron window casings. I like the starkness. I have the two downstairs floors but, other than my gym, I haven't done much furnishing. When I'm home I'm either working out or sleeping – most of the time alone. It's a good location. I can cut through Quincy Market and walk to Papa's in a few minutes. Beacon Hill is even closer.
September is a nice month in Boston. Summers here can be too hot but by September the days are bright and sunny but the air blowing in off the harbor is cool and salty. For no good reason I could think of I hadn't been to Beacon Hill in years. It occurred to me briefly that I wouldn't remember which townhouse was GrammyLou's, they all look alike. But as soon as I rounded the corner onto Mount Vernon Street I recognized it. The drapes were drawn in all the windows and the tiny bits of garden on either side of the front steps were tidy. The facade looked like it always had. I stood for several minutes wondering what I had been expecting.
Mattie and I had explored that house from the basement kitchen up to the empty fourth floor where servants once lived. At the top of the building, behind the mansard windows, was the mysterious ballroom that we were strictly forbidden to enter. It was locked tight and, though we sneaked up the servants' back stairs, we never found that door unlocked either.
“GrammyLou locked it on the night Daddy died,” Mattie confided in me. “And she's never opened it since.”
“Really?” I said. “Why?”
“It was his birthday and all his friends were here. There was a terrible fight and he and Mommy left. It was raining and they were driving back to Hamilton where we lived then. I was spending the night at my cousins' house.” Mattie's eyes were huge and brilliant. I thought she had told this story to herself many times. I found it thrilling.
“He flipped his car over and Mommy and Daddy both died. When GrammyLou heard what happened she started screaming and fell down on the floor. She threw everybody out of her house and ordered the ballroom to be locked up and nobody has ever been inside since the night they died.”
“How do you know this?” I asked, mesmerized by her story. “Did GrammyLou tell you?”
“No!” Mattie leaned closer and cupped her hands around my ear, even though GrammyLou was downstairs in her sitting room, and Nell was in the kitchen. “Mrs. Turner told me. She was GrammyLou's cook but she retired. I miss her. She used to tell me stories about the balls and parties GrammyLou had here. She said that there are buffet tables covered with linens and crystal champagne glasses and big bouquets of flowers and all of them are just as they were when Daddy died.”
“Wow,” I said. “We've got to figure a way to get in there.”
“I think it's haunted,” Mattie said. “I really do. Sometimes the ghost cries terribly.”
“Really?” The skin all over my body prickled with fear and excitement.
The only thing that could have made GrammyLou's house more thrilling would be a ghost in the abandoned ballroom. At least that was what we thought then. How little we knew.
I walked down the street and rounded the corner to the service alley behind the house. The newspaper article said that the body had been dug up from under a terrace. The only terrace I remembered was in the back garden. I had vague memories of it being built one summer when I was in high school and Mattie was home from her school. But that was after my life changed so drastically. Mattie and I were as close as two girls could be until I was twelve. That's when Dianne came back and took me away. I didn't want to go with her but I had no choice. She made me go home to San Diego with her and it was awful. I missed Mattie terribly. I hated California. I hated everything about my life during those years. Most of all I hated Dianne. Naturally, she got tired of me in a few years and shipped me back to Boston. Some mother she was. But I didn't care, I was just happy to be back.
By then Mattie was in boarding school. We wrote a few letters and, when she was home on breaks or in the summer, I'd visit her but by then everything had changed. I had changed. It wasn't long until we drifted apart. I guess that's just the way things happen.
I counted the houses as I walked down the alley but I wouldn't have needed to because I recognized GrammyLou's garden immediately. For one thing, there was a big hole where part of the terrace had been ripped up. The iron gate to the drive was open and, as I stood there trying to work up the nerve to go into the yard, the side door of the garage swung open and a tall man wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a Red Sox cap stepped out.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Sorry,” I said. “I was just curious.”
He tipped his baseball cap back and put his hands on his hips. “Come to see the ghoulish grave?” he asked. He grinned and I thought there was something familiar about him.
“No,” I said. “I used to be friends with the girl who lived here years ago. I just found out about Mrs. Thorndike passing away.”
He cocked his head to the side and then gave a wide smile. “Vivienne Lang?”
I stared at him. “Who are you?”
“Trent Doyle. I used to do yard work for Mrs. Thorndike. Still do, I guess, only I work for Mattie now.” He wiped his hand on his jeans and held it out. I shook it.
“I remember you. Mattie and I used to watch you work. Especially when you worked without your shirt on.” He looked like he would still look good without a shirt.
He tipped back his head and laughed showing even white teeth and deep laugh lines. “You girls were both so cute – you were as dark as she was light. I always enjoyed seeing you two peeking out of the window.” He studied me. “You look good. I like the hair, or should I say the lack of it.”
“I've got hair,” I said, unsure as to whether he was teasing me or being serious. “I keep it short because I work out a lot.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” He was looking at me in a way that infuriates and thrills me at the same time. “I think your biceps are bigger than mine.”
“Naw.” I held my arm out. On my walk over the day turned warmer than I expected so I had pulled off my sweatshirt and tied it around my waist. I was just wearing a black cotton camisole with some old jeans.
He pushed up the sleeve of his t-shirt and held his flexed arm up to mine. “Pretty close,” he said.
His skin brushed mine and I felt a ripple of excitement. Don't go there, I told myself, don't you dare go there.
“Have you seen Mattie?” I asked backing away from him.
“I have. She and her husband were here for part of the summer cleaning the place out and getting it ready to sell. They went back down to the Cape a few weeks ago.” He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jeans which just served to pull them tighter. “Mattie got pretty upset when she found out about...” He nodded toward the open hole at the end of the terrace. “My dad and I built that terrace. We had no idea we were building it over a grave.”
“What happened?” I said. “The paper said her name was Britta Falk but I don't remember anyone by that name working for GrammyLou. I used to be here all the time when Mattie and I were in grade school.”
“It's a long story.” He was looking down, avoiding my eyes. “You should call Mattie. I bet she'd love to hear from you.”
“I don't know,” I said. “We were really good friends once but after I moved back here from California.” I shrugged. “She changed toward me.”
“I'll tell you what. Give me your number and I'll tell her I saw you and pass the number on. Then if she wants to, she can give you a call. Do you live around here?”
“Yeah. In the North End.” I rummaged in my pocket but didn't have anything to write with.
“Here.” He pulled out his wallet and took out two business cards and a stub of pencil. He wrote my number down on the back of one and handed the other one to me. “Call me sometime,” he said. “That's my cell number. You never know when you might need a handyman.”
I've never figured out what happens to me when a man starts flirting with me. I never know how to take it. And if the ring on his left hand was any indication, Trent Doyle was married - not that I'd let that stop me in the past. I'm not proud of the things I have done. Worse, I'm never sure if I'll do them again.
“The paper said Mattie's last name is Michaud now and that she lives in Truro,” I said looking at the card he handed me.
“Yeah. Her husband Stan is a hell of a nice guy. He's a fisherman and I've gone out on his boat with him. He's nothing like you'd expect a girl like Mattie to marry. Do you have a car?”
I nodded. “I don't drive much but I bought a Mustang convertible last year. An old one. I've been working on it in a friend's garage in Chelsea.”
Trent smiled. “Wow,” he said with a lift of his eyebrows, “you've turned into quite a woman, Viv. Body-builder and vintage car mechanic.”
“Not quite.” It was increasingly obvious that this conversation was not headed in a good direction. “Look, I better get going but it was nice seeing you. I hope I hear from Mattie.” I turned toward the gate.
“You will,” he said. “See you around.”
I took a deep breath and forced myself to not look back. Trent Doyle was very attractive and for me that was a problem. I walked over to Quincy Market and picked out the vegetables I wanted for tonight's dinner.
As I carried my bag up Cross Street to Fulton I noticed two men walking just ahead of me. I knew those men, not those particular men exactly, but men like them. I knew by the way they walked, the way they laughed as they walked, the way they carried their bags carelessly slung over their shoulders. I knew where they were going. The Mariner's House is just past Paul Revere's house on North Square. Seamen stay there when they have a few days ashore. Men from places far away. Men who are looking for some fun. I know about those men – more than I should. I forced myself to keep my eyes on the sidewalk. I forced myself to stop at my door and to put the key in the latch. I forced myself not to think. I needed to work out hard, cook a good meal, and get myself to a Meeting.