Now I guess if you were writing a modern novel, the kind where each chapter is four pages and there are 75 of them and each chapter really is a scene in the ultimate movie version when the studio wants to pick up an easy script for summer release, you would start my story right now, in my cell. You then go to flashbacks, the story unfolds, and it is unchallenging (you have to know how it ends after all, the movie begins in a jail) but has that satisfying roundness of narrative that makes you feel afterwards that you have seen a full “story.”
What really troubles me is not that they did not prove me guilty, but rather how the facts – what the DA called the “evidence” – incredibly wound itself around my person so tightly that I could not escape. It’s not a matter of my thinking I was smarter than anyone else; it’s more a matter of how circumstance encompasses reality and thereby dictates the future.
He was an old guy; at his house, number 77, where his widow and children and grandchildren gathered in his memory that night, Sitting on the coffee table in the front parlor of the brick-front turn of the century neo-Victorian, was a home-made picture album of his eightieth birthday party held that very winter. I knew him well in a shallow kind of way, a perpetual guest at the home of a mutual friend where he and his wife also were regularly invited. I liked him; he had that courtly reserve that comes with guys that age who wear bow-ties. When I was told of his death, I wanted to attend the funeral but it wasn’t convenient, coming as it did on a sunny warm Sunday in early summer. I decided to pay my condolences instead on the next day, after work, when I could stop by on the way home from the City, say the warm things I felt, tell the widow we would stay in touch, and still get home in time for a half-bottle of Pinot and a few smokes along with Sunday’s left-overs.
They were digging up the streets and it was one of those muggy Boston days where the trees in Back Bay offered no relief; the heat fell into your car through open windows and was mollified only by cranking up the air conditioning. I circled the block twice, deciphering the parking signs and trying to avoid the red traffic cones around the trenches, angry that I had gotten a late start and was bumping up against the hour when visiting was scheduled to end. Taking a chance next to a cryptic yellow stripe on the curb that may have meant I was pulling into a tow zone, I swung out of the car, tucked my small purse under the front seat, ran my palms down the sides of my skirt, and headed down the street.
The door was half open, letting into a small vestibule with an inner door beyond. Quietly I shut the outer door behind me and let myself through into the hallway. The dark oak woodwork of a turned banister and paneled stair to my right, pocket doors half opening to a lush sitting room on the left with a couple of couches, chintz around a small marble fireplace, crystal chandelier hanging from a high ceiling with central plaster medallion and dentil molding around; the air was cooled, the room inviting. The room was also empty.
On the wall, a small shelf held a hand-lettered sign on a white card, the script full of seraphs and mock medieval adornments: “Please remove shoes.” I slipped out of my heels and pushed them gently to the side of the hallway.
I took a few steps down the hall; black and white photographs on the walls, polished wood floors with rich red Oriental runner, a casual table of vaguely Chinese influence to one side. I walked tentatively back into the house when I was struck by the absolute silence. Could there be a prayer being said, a silent observation of some sort, in one of the back rooms? Holding my right arm out and slightly in front of me as if to ward off a sudden turn in the landscape or to sense a change in surroundings, I walked in small steps further down the hallway, past an empty dining room with glass breakfront and heavy table and chairs with ball and claw feet sinking into an even darker Oriental, into a kitchen redone with stainless steel and granite, surrounded with glass-fronted cabinets. Empty, the stools around the counter standing at unoccupied attention.
I paused and listened; it could not be this quiet! Could people be up the stairs? Improbable. I leaned into the rear stairwell; somewhere the hum of an air conditioner. Something clearly is not right about what I am doing; I lean further into the rear stairwell, one foot on the first step, hand gently on the rail and listen without breath. Something is just not right. I turn and walk quickly back down the hallway.
* * *
Mildred is ushering out the last of the visitors, me included. There has not been a chance to speak except for the perfunctory condolences, and now there is that awkward silence when she says “You’re going?” and I say “yes, it has been a long day for you.” Compelled to fill the ensuing silent moment, I tell her that a funny thing happened to me on the way to her house, I wandered into number 75 next door, I was so flumoxed about being late and all, and it was the strangest thing, the door was open, I took off my shoes, I got all the way into the back of the house and there was no one there of course, I got out as fast as I could once I realized my mistake, felt like a fool when I looked at the house number and came right over but was amazed that the apartment, lovely by the way, was wide open like that and what was the sign about the shoes all about?
“She’s strange. Perfectly nice but strange. Came to the funeral yesterday, you would have met her…. No one on the street locks up, I know it’s in the City but we’ve all been here for years, it is really quite safe. Even when Lou goes out for his late night walks—well….” Suddenly Mildred’s face sags, her years etch their sorrow on her cheeks as her eyes fill. I am sorry I started but can only give her a quick hug, a squeeze of the hands and I am again out in the heat, the contrast to the cool interior makes me break out into moist globules, I have to wipe my forehead twice before I can regain the car. I sit back in the driver’s seat and sigh. I wonder why my right hand quivers a little, and then I remember and I turn on the ignition.
* * *
“So then what did you do?”
“I told you. I got concerned. Scared actually. The place was clearly empty. It felt empty. You know, sometimes when you just stop and think for a minute and it comes to you, there is no one there. Just a feeling. So I went out into the street and saw I was next door, the numbers are those little brass things, I just went up the wrong steps and the door was open. So anyway I went into 77.”
He kept his notes in a black and white bound book, what we used to call a composition book in school. It was not a large book, more like half-sized. He wrote in pencil, a small bitten piece of yellow pencil, it made him curl his fingers and hunch over the page as he laboriously recorded whatever it was that inspired him.
“You want coffee?”
“I want to go home. I’ve been here for an hour and half. I told you what happened. Didn’t you talk to Mildred next door?”
“We have a few things we still have to go over. You sure you don’t want coffee?” He was a large black man, Detective Browning or Bronson or somesuch, he had given me his card and I had slipped it into my purse and didn’t want to go digging for it so I didn’t use his name. Somehow I sensed that coffee equated to more questions; I waved my hand dismissively.
Browning/Bronson came back into the room with steam coming out of a white plastic cup with playing cards printed on the side in black and red. All aces. “Machine is terrible but it’s all we got, the guy next door closes at 4.”
“I don’t know what more I can tell you. I thought the place was empty. How was I to know someone was dead? I never left the first floor.”
“Now that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about.” He flipped back to near the start of his book. “You know, we got your fingerprints on the railing heading up the back stairs. How am I supposed to believe you never went up there, those stairs go right to the hall outside her bedroom.”
“I told you, I was listening up the stairs. I must have put my hand on the railing.” I paused. “I am sure there were no fingerprints up the stairs, you know on top. And I’m sure there were no footprints.”
“Well, you don’t get footprints on a carpet, and no dirt or anything if someone is barefoot.” He did not write into his book; an ominous sign? “Why didn’t you tell me you knew her?”
“I didn’t know her name until I came in here, didn’t know it when you called. Why would I tell you that? Or, not tell you that? Look, I don’t want to say I am confused or worried but I don’t know what is going on here. Why do you keep asking me questions? Should I have a lawyer or something? I didn’t do anything and you’re acting like I did.” My voice squeaked at the end, I wished it hadn’t.
“I told you we are just trying to understand what happened. If you want a lawyer go call one, I won’t ask any more questions.” He glanced up over his reading glasses; his stare said, if you ask for a lawyer then I know you need a lawyer and why would that be, young woman?
“Look, I told you what happened. I don’t mean to be uncooperative but I don’t have anything else to say. I would like to go home. It’s late, I worked all day.”
“If I send someone with you and drive you home, can we pick up the shoes you were wearing last night?” His brow made quizzical motions. “Might tell us something. We both know you were in the place, and we both know when, and I am told that the subject died at…” pages flip briefly “… just around 7:30. That was sort of when you were there?” It was a statement disguised as a question. “The shoes might, well might tell us something about this.”
I didn’t like that question; my heels had been scuffed on the rough pavement around the apartment, where they were digging up the pavement, and I had dropped them at the cobbler on the ground floor of my office building on the way into work that morning. Somehow I was not enthused about explaining that fact, however benign.
“I think I want to talk to a lawyer. You’re making a big deal out of this and I don’t like it.”
Browning/Bronson flipped his book shut, looked up and allowed himself a brief, thin smile.
* * *
Well, Let’s not get melodramatic here. I have no idea how they found out about the whole history, maybe it just came out later when they started digging. You really never know, when these things happen, about the sequence of things. So the grand jury indicted me based on that whole thing in New York and the finger print, and then the cobbler was slow as only cobblers are and they found some blood on the bottom of the left shoe and since I had told them I left the shoes at the front door there really was no way that there could have been blood on that shoe if I were telling the truth. I guess. Who knows.
The knife had no finger prints but where the blade met the hilt was a strand from a rag they found in the kitchen and they figured out someone had wiped the knife clean, and my lawyer thought that ten years was a great trade against the risk of going to trial, which he was sure we would win but then again you never know about juries, now do you?
So here I sit and I am told that the way it worked out the case is over and done with. Which is good. Because now I can finally say it, and it feels good to say it.
It was dumb luck they lived next door, dumb luck I wandered in, dumb luck she was in bed with the flu, just one of those really really weird things, you know.
But I am just totally glad I killed the bitch. I truly am.