From an Interlude, Incompletely

guylandSanford Gwynn woke up in the drainage ditch behind the Nassau County Jail. It was still quite early, the grove of trees was lush and quiet, and the sky was clear and just beginning to draw a tint of pink.

Mr. Gwynn was sprawled in a nearly symmetrical star shape, as though he had tried to make a snowman in the grass. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he had tried. But there he was, arms spread wide and his legs spread open, and after a few moments, Mr. Gwynn accidentally spit on himself.

He puffed his lips into an O shape, and exhaled loudly. He opened his eyes slowly, and croaked a groan of relief that it was not yet bright and very quiet.

For a moment, he wondered what had stirred him.

Then, with great care, he propped himself up on his elbows and tried to orient his head perpendicular to the ground. After about 30 seconds, he succeeded.

He looked down at himself. Remarkably, at least to his sore eyes, things were well sorted. There were no embarrassing stains, yawning tears or unfamiliar articles. His black wool pants were thoroughly wrinkled and there was dust of some sort on his left knee, but they were in one piece. His white shirt was creased in a fascinating geometric pattern of cascading spindly moraines. And his jacket?

Well, he wasn’t sure where his jacket was. And he noticed he had only one shoe. But he could see pants and he could see a shirt. And he still had his socks.

Mr. Gwynn totted up these victories with no small amount of satisfaction. He sighed again. And with careful exertion pushed himself up into a sitting position.

After a moment, he said, “Not so bad,” to no one.

As he sat, his head slowly drooped downward, tilting his field of vision from the jail and its parking lot, which was a picture of stolid, civic serenity, to the patch of ground between his legs. He gazed at the grass and the dirt and at a few small pieces of trash, a bottle cap, a scrap of paper and a toy wedding ring.

A few minutes later, he started out of his trance and slowly looked up again. Trees, scrub and jail, everything was still quiet. He thought about what to do, and he decided that he should get up and get something to eat.

He let his body unfold back into the grass. His head smacked into something. Bemused, he twisted his body and looked down where his head had been. It was a shoe. After a beat he recognized it as his shoe.

He smiled a smile of experienced accomplishment.

Then, something made him glance up. A few inches away from his face was his jacket, hanging from a low-hanging branch.

He untwisted himself and laid back down again, grinning more broadly than before.

It was nearly 9 by the time Mr. Gwynn emerged from the grove, sauntered up Packwood to the newsstand, bought a few newspapers and settled into a stool at Mr. Kafeer’s diner.

Mr. Kafeer was short, smoothly bald and robustly fit. Few people in Mineola knew it, but Mr. Kafeer loved to exercise. And he would occasionally run in place in front of the broad grill in his kitchen, though he was careful to keep this activity out of view of his customers.

He was well-acquainted with Mr. Gwynn. That morning, he had seen Mr. Gwynn coming a long way up the street. As Mr. Gwynn walked closer, his hair matted and his shirttails untucked, Mr. Kafeer was distracted by a thorough, scathing judgment of the dissipated habits of 20-something American men.

They drank too much. They smoked too much. Never mind that Mr. Kafeer was a devout muslim; he was possessed with the comprehensive tolerance of a businessman. Still, Mr. Kafeer could talk all day about his customers and never come up with the name of a young man who met his approval.

But Mr. Kafeer’s tolerance was also mingled with the cautious fear and pragmatism of an immigrant. He had first come to America in 1900, literally stepping off the boat onto Ellis Island. Within days he had become enamored, almost dreamy, with the polyglot chaos of the streets. But he also was industrious, and soon ingratiated himself with the small, moneyed knot of Levantine elders who noodled around Lower Manhattan.

It took Mr. Kafeer a month to set up his own business, a lunch counter at the back of a drug store owned by a crusty Syrian. Mr. Kafeer believed he had nailed the American dream.

A month after that, it was looted, with unapologetic irony, by an anti-Italian mob.

Undeterred, he tried again. This time, he opened a kebab stand in a Jewish neighborhood a good, long walk from downtown, and despite the Zionist rumblings and the occasional cross looks, he made out like a bandit. His neighbors came to trust him, and a few even respected him.

After a year and a half, an anti-Jewish mob took his cart and pitched it in the East River.

As he watched his kebabs float downriver, Mr. Kafeer dusted himself off. He walked to Penn Station, bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad and stepped off the train in Mineola, where there were few Italians or Jews and only one Moroccan, himself.

That was 12 years ago.   

Mr. Gwynn shuffled toward the front door of the diner, kicked it accidentally as he fumbled with the handle and finally pushed his way in with a boozy sigh.

Mr. Kafeer swallowed his disgust.

“Ahh, Sayyid Gwynn,” he said with hollow enthusiasm.

Mr. Gwynn gave a polite nod. He did not know Mr. Kafeer’s name, even though he had accepted thousands of plates from his hand, even though the word was written on above the windows on the front of the building.

“You will be wanting the eggs and the toast,” Mr. Kafeer said.

Mr. Gwynn nodded again, sat down and laid the day’s papers on the counter. Mr. Kafeer retreated to his kitchen.

For all his faults, his self-indulgent personality and revolting habits, Mr. Gwynn at least had currency. That is to say, he read several newspapers every day, hangovers notwithstanding, and could be a competent partner in conversation about the day’s events.

He had his favorite newspapers, of course, but in fact, he was fairly tolerant when it came to quality. He could be counted on to buy one of the big papers, The Times or The Tribune, but he did not share the owly judgment of his colleagues — who were quick to hoot at busted headlines and purple writing — when it came to the odd measures and obscure flags of smaller circulations.

Mr. Gwynn approached a newsstand like a pilgrim, studying the front pages with penitent seriousness even before he could make out the letters. Typically, he would buy two or three. Always, he paid with a bill and waved away the change with a half-audible, “Keep it.”

The sight of stacks of grubby newsprint, crowned by rocks, lumps of iron and other heavy oddments, seemed to clear his mind, tamp down the throbbing in his head and the hot nausea in his throat. Even on the mornings after particularly extreme benders, Mr. Gwynn was in a cafe somewhere with coffee and a newspaper by about 9 in the morning. Ten, at least.

O.K. Maybe 11.

But today, it was relatively early and Mr. Gwynn had a full head of curiosity brewing. He smoothed the papers with his hand. The New York Times was on top. His eyes scanned hungrily for the lede article. His eyes caught the letters “T.R.,” and he felt a tingle of joy.

Ahh, the Colonel, he thought, referring to the former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who had been out of office but nearly always in the news since 1908.

Please, Mr. Gwynn begged to no one in particular, let him have made another cantankerously ridiculous speech.

Under the headline ‘IF PERKINS GOES, I’LL GO, TOO’ — T.R., an article related the Colonel’s arrival from his nearly-ill-fated Amazonian expedition. The papers had said that he looked like death in May when he stumbled out of the jungle, and the Colonel had had a violent attack of malaria, more severe than any he had in South America, only a week before.

But the teeth-snapping Roosevelt vigor, in the form of a belligerent tangle with reporters and the release of a long prepared statement, was fairly pulsing through the newswires.

What the Colonel was most exercised about was the administration’s recent offer of $25 million to the government of Colombia, compensation for it lost when the United States, prodded with muscular diplomacy by the Colonel, had built the Panama Canal. But most reporters led with a building rift in the Progressive Party, which the Colonel had custom-made for an attempt to retake the White House in 1912.

Mr. Gwynn began to read with relish — “If they read George Perkins out of the party,” a combative Colonel rasped, referring to the former J. P. Morgan toady and current Progressive functionary, “they will have to read me out, too.”

Gwynn snorted.

And this, in its way, seemed to announced Filo Phinney, who stepped out of the white summer light into the diner. He went directly to the counter, asked for a coffee and then glanced around the room. His eyes quickly alighted on Mr. Gwynn, and once he had his beer he walked over and stood next to where Mr. Gwynn was slouched.

“How’s the boy?”

Mr. Gwynn grunted in the affirmative.

Mr. Phinney had an abiding tolerance for all of God’s creatures, chief among them Mr. Gwynn. He was accustomed to his habits, his grandiose storytelling, his inevitable inebriation. For sure, by now, Mr. Phinney barely noted that malodorous cloud of vaporized rye whiskey that typically hung like a funeral mask around Mr. Gwynn’s head.

Mr. Phinney did not mean to sit down, so he stooped low, as if to say something more confidentially Mr. Gwynn, but he stopped himself about halfway down. He smelled something odd.

“What have you been drinking?”

Mr. Gwynn exchanged a disinterested look for a confused one, then cashed it all in for resignation.

“I sat in some onions.”

That made sense somehow.

There’s This Guy, See, and He Walks Into a Bar

boston

“Swensen. Swensen, tell Fischbein that joke.”

“Yes,” Mr. Fischbein said, exaggerating his interest in his usual condescending fashion. “Please, tell me your precious joke.”

“Guy goes to Boston,” Mr. Swensen said, a grin spreading on his face. “Walks out the trains station into the first bar he sees, hungry for seafood.”

Mr. Fischbein shook his head and grimaced with impatience.

“And he asks the bartender, Hey, Barkeep, where can I get scrod in this town?”

There is a flutter of laughter.

“Bartender gets this look on his face. He glances up and down the bar, and says, ‘Buster, I have been asked that question in many ways, but never in the plu-perfect subjunctive.’”

Mr. Fischbein spit out his coffee.

“You see,” Mr. Fischbein coughed. “This is what I mean.”

He coughed again.

“Rascals,” he said as he pulled his handkerchief out to wipe his mouth.

“Dolts. Unprofessional —” he stopped himself. After a beat, he stamped his foot and wagged a finger at none of them in particular.

“There is no such thing as the plu-perfect subjunctive!”

All the reporters broke into laughter. A few of them exchanged money.

It’s the End, Mr. Brown

1

2

3

4

5

Chapter 1: The Pantomime Horse

11-29_11-30-11 - BCN incl things for blog, beggars 004Shadows stretched long, languid arms across the plaza. The cool stone of the buildings, of the walkways, softened into purple.

On the table in front of a seated man there was a lean bottle of wine, a lump of bread and a white wedge of mountain cheese.

The man sipped from his glass and watched yellow bars of sunlight retreat from view. He thought about many things, but kept coming back to the permanence of the place. How many lazy eyes over the centuries had contemplated these same shadows, constantly changing but stretching familiarly across the same lines and angles.

He picked up a piece of bread and dropped it into his mouth. And as he chew he noticed a brown pantomime horse picking its way toward him through the disorder of metal tables and chairs.

It was a standard two-man rig, uniformly brown, with the tail and mane made of coarse yarn. The horse stepped nimbly, but cautiously, closer.

Soon, it stopped, nearly on top of the man at the table. He looked up and could see into the eyes behind the mask. The eyes in the horse stared back.

He said nothing, not exactly eager to engage with what he assumed was a busker but not exactly dreading it either.

The horse did nothing.

And the little noises piercing the quiet of the square, insulated as it was from nearby busy thoroughfares, became a little more noticeable. He could hear the faint laughtrack of passing tourists, the buzz of the traffic — and the breathing of the person inside the horse.

“Yes?” he said, involuntarily.

Nothing.

He shifted in his seat, which he began to notice was a bit uncomfortable. He reached for the cheese and sliced off a small piece.

“What’s the trick?” he said, chewing. “I saw this once, I think in Herald Square.”

He paused. “I’m pretty sure.”

He was lying.

“They never expect money for it,” he said, trying to sound sure of himself.

Still, nothing.

He reached for his glass, took an awkward sip and made an abrupt motion to the waiter across the plaza. Then he stood, his chair jerking and briefly shrieking as it grated along the stone pavers.

But as reached into his pocket for his wallet, the horse finally made a move. It clopped noisily in a half-circle and gestured with its head in the direction it had come from.

He had pulled a 20-euro note from his wallet, but had stopped thinking about his bill. He looked at the horse, at the eyes inside the horse.

He dropped the money on the table and made a move as if to step around the back of the horse. But the horse moved carefully, politely, to block him, turning again and gesturing in the same direction.

“The Algorithm doesn’t see the outliers. O.K.?” came an attempt at an explanation in a dark room. Hanging on the wall behind three people huddld under a lamp was a pantomime horse costume.

“A pantomime horse doesn’t register,” the voice continued. “They see the sameness, the ordinariness of the mass of people. The Algorithm absorbs this, condenses and distills, and out comes pure data. Data that is perfect. Completely errorless in its broad sketches.

“It’s not that it predicts the future. It creates the possibilities that make up the future, which even a fool can see is the same thing.”

“Your trip to the square felt spontaneous, I am sure. But it would have been easy to win a bet on where you would go on an afternoon like this. And what you would order. And the chance that you would do it again grows greater with each sip. The Algorithm works on you with the same inexorable force as that bottle of wine.”

Other than the three people, and the costume, the room was bare.

“Think of those popular science shows that try to explain the multiverse. What you see on the television is an array of vibrating dots. The lives of trillions of beings jiggling like a salesman’s neck tie.

“No. See? No. How can you get to the heart of it with that? You have to come back around. Start over.”

The man talking put his hands down, flat on his knees. Then brought one up to his nose. He arched his back and pointed his face up in the air.

“Think of a dog’s nose,” he said. “Empty spaces next to fitted, sensitive membranes, each of which is wrapping around the folds of the membrane next to it. The anatomy of it is a marvel, really. But take it a step further. Imagine an endless cavern of tiny niches, wending passages and yawning spaces. In some, channels connect. In others, they are merely close. In still others, one space is like a remote outpost, a firewatcher in the Yukon or something. Nothing but void. And all of it, the spaces, the connections, led around by a thinking, but unknowning, whole.”

The man paused.

“The dog, you see?”

He paused again.

“Second flit by here,” he said, pointing to one side of his nose. “But a few feet away,” he added, pointing to the other side, “in a flex of a muscle, a torrent of years passes.

“Some universes track the same times, same realities. Others have stopped altogether. It’s all there. On an ever-jerking, snuffling snout, thrusting into still richer worlds.”

One of the other men made a motion as if to interrupt, but the first man waved him off.

“It’s not a prediction. It’s an echo. All that needs to be done is to give you the meagre means. To ensure you’ll be here. Then the future unfolds a bit more. Like a road map. Stomach pills, larger pants, mere waypoints.

“It’s the inherent fragility of the movement that is the appeal, like those poor bastards in Ireland. An uprising in every generation, reliably and mercilessly repressed.

“No reasonable person could have hoped to succeed in their shoes, but it’s that flawed method, fragile as it is, that is the only source of success. To resist in any other way would require mind-boggling computing power, bottomless resources. These guys pick up a few funny hats, a few yards of felt, and they’ve got a movement.”

Chapter 57: The Backhoe

For Bob, things never felt quite right until the day that Sanford bit him.

It had been one of those weeks. Bob had been late to the office three times; R-section had returned an entire packet of his reports, with extensive revisions; he had spilled coffee and ink on himself in rapid succession, twice; and the soft-serve machine in the B-section cafeteria had been giving him fits.

Then, that Friday, Bob had come home, wearily. He went into his kitchen, pulled open the fridge with a defeated sigh and was reaching for an alcohol-enriched beverage when, through his window he saw Sanford steer a bright yellow backhoe onto his lawn.

This was — to say the least — a startling departure from the cordial, if disinterested, detente that had prevailed in the years since that unpleasant week when Sanford moved in.

Bob couldn’t believe it. He stood at the back window, his eyes gaping open, his jaw involuntarily dropped. Out in the orange glow of the twilight he could see Sanford, grinning maniacally in the black leather seat of an enormous, metallic, earth-rending dinosaur.

Sanford appeared to be having trouble maneuvering the machine to where he wanted it, and the backhoe’s tires carved long brown arcs of mud down what was already an unsightly clot of Bob’s crabgrass. Sanford wrenched the gear shift with great determination, and the machine lurched forward and backward, the tires churning up clumps of green and brown.

Bob was completely still while watching all of this; then something inside of him snapped. At the time, though he would have no memory of this later, Bob felt like he could hear the actual snapping.

He slammed his fridge shut, kicked open his back door and charged toward the backhoe in long angry strides. Sanford’s head jerked once, spasmodically, in Bob’s direction. Bob did not have time to check his forward momentum — he scarcely had time to change the determined expression on his face — when Sanford sprang from his seat, high in the air like cartoon animal.

Sanford’s eyes were shot bright red, and his mouth curled into an awful grin, and before Bob could say, “What the hairy balls do you think you are doing?” — before Bob had even formed the thought in his head — Sanford had Bob’s shoulders pinned to the ground and had clamped his mouth firmly to Bob’s collar bone.

Fear charged into Bob’s mind as quickly as he had departed his kitchen. It muscled aside all the self-righteous, sarcastic anger that had propelled him out of the house, it blotted out the building disappointments of the previous week, and left him a quivering, doughy slug of sharp, painful insecurity.

He made a terrified squeak, and then heard — no, he only felt it — Sanford’s teeth slicing through tendon and muscle, cracking bones. Sanford’s bulk pressed him into the earth. It seemed to Bob that the ground was starting to close over his head and envelop him in cold, lonely darkness.

But at that moment, when an ordinary person might begin to hallucinate delusions of an afterlife, a strange sensation began welling inside Bob. It was cooling, soothing and wonderful; it seemed to spread from his neck down, slowly at first but then in surging gouts like a cascade of spring water under his skin. It kept going, swirling and bubbling inside of him — or so it felt — rippling into his stomach and running down his legs and out to the tips of his fingers.

At length, he noticed that he was no longer looking up at the sky but at a kaleidoscope of soft colors. He heard music. He saw friendly, fuzzy creatures. He smelled beautiful things. And then it was all gone and he was standing on his lawn next to the quietly humming backhoe. Next to him was Sanford, his chin and neck and T-shirt soaked liberally in Bob’s blood.

Bob smiled. Sanford smiled back, more broadly and more lovingly than Bob could remember anyone ever having smiled at him, or at anyone, for that matter.

He inhaled deeply and looked back toward his house. The sun slanted down in soft orange light. Everything looked as pretty as an Easter basket.

Bob was about to step in that direction when he felt his shoulder move awkwardly. He looked down at his own blood-soaked shirt and realized that he could see on his collar bone the bottom of a serious wound. He casually touched his hand across the mouth-shaped hole Sanford had left — and felt sublime relief.

There was no pain, there was no bleeding. Where once his pimply neck had shimmered in pale, clammy whiteness there was a misplaced, crusted crimson epaulet. And Bob exhaled with satisfaction and contentment.

Iowa Haiku Cycle, No. 1

In a barnyard, sighs
of melancholy, yearning.
Hayden Fry yet dreams?

The highway murmurs
distantly in blue twilight:
Is Maid-Rite open?

Can it be ennui
if fields and trees are devoid
of occupation?

Comes a rejoinder,
rattling dry husks: What would
Henry Wallace do?

Emerges this truth:
The smell of money is like
a barnyard sighing.

 

 

The Strange Death of Lulu Bailey, Part 2

We have here been examining the strange death in 1914 of Lulu Bailey of Hempstead, N.Y.

“The centre of every gaze,” began the report in The Times on July 4, “in a crowd that packed the courtroom of Coroner Corodon Norton” was on Florence Carman, the wife of Dr. Edwin Carman. It was in his home office, of course, that Mrs. Bailey met her untimely end on an otherwise pleasant summer evening a few days before.

The Bailey murder had become the talk of the town. Wild rumors about the shooting, about Dr. Carman’s illicit love life, about a mysterious “woman in white,” about even the internal organs of the deceased, were in constant motion around town. By the time the coroner called to order his inquest, the airless courtroom — its only window was kept shut — was a sultry mob scene of smug cops, mealy reporters and local busybodies. The resulting heat and tension eventually caused Mrs. Carman to go all woozy and led the authorities to start booting folks from the gallery.

Outside in the July sunshine, there were growing rumbles that the police and the coroner had made a hash of the investigation, in part because there was no suspect and the murder weapon had not been found; but mostly because the doctor and most of the authorities were cozy members of the nearby Elks lodge. Mr. Norton’s inquest was supposed to be the first cannon shot across the bow of such discontent.

Dr. Carman at inquest  (LOC)

Dr. Carman at the inquest. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The hearing’s climax came late in the afternoon. A witness, a farmer named George Golder, had told the police he had seen a “woman in white” in the office immediately before the crime. Scuttlebutt was that the mystery woman was, in fact, Mrs. Carman herself. This was a potential blockbuster: She had told the police she was in her room at the time of the shooting, and said several times that she had never seen the victim, “dead or alive.”

The coroner, in a bit of stagecraft worthy of an episode of “Perry Mason,” arranged for Mrs. Carman and her sister to enter the back of the courtroom to see if Mr. Golder could tell Mrs. Carman from a sack of potatoes.

“There was a breathless silence, as the crowd leaned forward to catch the words that should identify the ‘woman in white.’”

Mr. Golder didn’t flinch. He fingered Mrs. Carman without hesitation.

For Mrs. Carman’s part, having apparently been caught in a bold lie, she didn’t flinch either. She left the courtroom without saying a word.
She maintained that cool and collected demeanor all the way to the end.

Through her indictment — which surprised observers because it was for murder. Through countless leads and blind alleys, which reporters trampled one another to follow every day in the papers (including a woman in Buffalo who assured everyone she was the murderer — just before killing herself). Through months spent in the county jail, albeit in special quarters decorated with geegaws from the Carmans’ luxurious home.

Mrs. Carman stayed calm through it all, even after her longtime maid, who had hewed to the family line, finally broke down and told the police that she had seen a determined Mrs. Carman go out the back door moments before the fatal shot. And moments later come back in, declaring, “I shot him!”

Her calm seemed to ooze from every pore, and was trumpeted on every newsstand when the trial began in October.

MRS. CARMAN COOL; TRIAL BEGINS TODAY.

Carman jury  (LOC)

The first trial’s jury. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The whole grim story was recounted in tedious detail, and the jury deadlocked over two days. Finally, jurors told the judge it was no use. They could not agree.

The air seemed to rush out of the courtroom. The prosecutors were ashen. The defendant was stunned. When the judge finally dismissed the jury, Mrs. Carman began to cry. She was acquitted, but “disappointed,” she said.

As you might have guessed, she quickly rallied. While the district attorney dithered, Mrs. Carman posted $25,000 bail and went for a ride in the country. She had a big meal. She received parties of visitors. She resigned her membership in the local suffrage club. And she boldly challenged the authorities to try again.

Even as her husband’s car puttered along the ruts of rural New Jersey, the district attorney obliged her. The husband of the victim, William B. Bailey, told reporters that he and his in-laws would “do anything in our power to convict this woman.”

In May, they reconvened for a morbid reprise.

Perhaps the only time Mrs. Carman ever lost her composure, through lurid accusations, through tedious court hearings, most of all through rumors of her husband’s infidelity, was on the last day of testimony at the second trial.

Prosecutors asked her if she had ever watched her husband through the window Mrs. Bailey had been shot from. Of course, Mrs. Carman had, when she confronted her husband after he kissed a nurse. But in the courtroom, in the crush of a humid spring afternoon, she faltered.

She asked, “Which time?”

The prosecutor pounced. “Did you look twice?” he shouted.

By now, everyone in the room could see that Mrs. Carman was trembling. All day her answers had been clear and sharp. Now she was stammering.

Was she really going to admit that she had done it?

Improbably, she blurted: “Believe me, if I had done it, I would never have gone to the same window!”

For whatever reason, the prosecutor let her up off the mat. Maybe he thought she had said enough. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall. In any case, acquittal, and a robust applause from the courtroom gallery, quickly followed. The jury this time was out for not much more than an hour.

Seven months earlier, Mrs. Carman had been crying in the courtroom. Now she was denying rumors that she planned to make a tour of the vaudeville circuit.

And almost a year and two murder trials later, Long Island was still no closer to understanding the strange death of Lulu Bailey.

Long Island Interlude: Love at the Jailhouse

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 3.28.48 PM

Mineola, N.Y., sometime in November 1913 (about seven months before the death of Lulu Bailey).

Sanford Gwynn woke up in the drainage ditch behind the Nassau County Jail early on a November morning. In a matter of moments, he would nominally be witness to the full flowering of one of the more lurid criminal enterprises in Mineola’s history.
For his part, Mr. Gwynn was too hung over to really notice.

The parking lot to the jail was a tangle of cars and activity, and all of it was clearly visible from where Mr. Gwynn was sprawled. Women in flirty, airy dresses made too-familiar gestures to men in disheveled suits. Most of the men were leaving, some of them with half-empty bottles, all of them with half-satisfied smirks on their faces. A handful, though, were late arriving, or were returning for a second pass through the most popular brothel and gaming house in all of western Long Island: That which was operated by Warden Winfield S. Box.

Mr. Box was not merely a pimp; at least, this is what he told himself. In any event, he was a respected, churchgoing citizen, with a wife and a large, pleasant-looking family. He was well-known for his prowess at horseshoes and well-liked at the Elks lodge that met just a few blocks away. To a fault, though, he also was an eminently practical man and, for reasons which will soon be clear, although probably not to Mr. Gwynn, organizing a whorehouse and casino in the county jail seemed like the natural thing to do.

At that moment, and not unusually, Mr. Gwynn was remarking foggily to himself that there was nothing wrong with waking up in the ditch.

He had come to realize, after a long period of continual observation, that there was a great comfort to it — if you allowed first that every ounce of his being was being savaged by a ruthless and unrelenting hangover.

In the first place, it was always cool in the ditch.

Even in the hottest days of August, the grass there was long and lush, and black walnut trees lolled their branches protectively overhead. The earth, soft and forgiving, would nuzzle a prone body like a concerned parent. In the spring or the fall, the early morning would bring dew, which to Mr. Gwynn held a soothing, almost icy, dampness that would apply itself to every inch of his nervous, twitching body.
In the second place, the ditch was convenient.

Straight behind Mr. Gwynn, about 100 yards away perpendicular from the ditch, was Ali Kafeer’s luncheonette. Immediately across the ditch was the aforementioned parking lot of the county jail, where Mr. Gwynn was a regular visitor. About 200 yards farther in the same direction was Pedersen’s Ale House, where he was also a regular. North of him, where the ditch met Packwood Road, was the Bengal Club, where he was regularly turned away. And not far to the south, somewhere beyond the trees, was the back door to the morose row house where he had a room.

The ditch was secluded, too.

It wound through a tall, disorganized grove of pitch pines, spruces, walnuts and other trees like a scar on the back of an angry, dirty animal. Below this wild mesh was a riot of shrubs — juniper, holly, bayberry — and harder-to-identify plants. Lapping at the roots, blanketing the mud, were mounds and mounds of rotting leaves, twigs and trash of all kinds. Here and there in the small wilderness were discarded monuments to carelessness, like the cast-iron stove that had been improbably tossed nearby.

The ditch itself was probably the result of the construction of the jail. Though, if had been an honest man, Mr. Gwynn would confess that in all the time he spent in the ditch, he never once wondered how it got there.

It should be said that Mr. Gwynn was not a honest man.

On this particular morning, in early November, the dew might have been frost. But it wasn’t, and Mr. Gwynn laid in the grass with his eyes closed, mostly oblivious to the occasional shrieks of playful laughter at the jail, and felt the coolness of his wet clothes with a perverse satisfaction. As car doors slammed and engines revved below him, he slowly stretched his limbs out.

Without opening his eyes, he knew his face was flecked with blades of grass and drops of muddy water. He could feel that his clothes were about half-soaked, and not only with water. He sighed. He did not mind.

As a breeze passed over his face, Mr. Gwynn slowly formed a mental sketch of the night before. He had left the offices of The Mineola Press Boy and Gazeteer after the close of the afternoon edition, had a dinner of eggs and toast under the obsequious gaze of Mr. Kafeer and then tried in vain for half an hour to get inside the Bengal Club.

At length, he had procured a bottle of rye from a corner store and wandered around in the gloaming trying to look casual while drinking it. Eventually, he fell into Pedersen’s, where he was sure he had told several fascinating anecdotes to a coterie of attractive young women.

As he laid there, the sky still dark and blank and the wind gently nudging the trash around his head, he thought he could hear their joyful adulation.

“Oh, Mr. Gwynn,” they said. “Your sense of humor!”

They all laughed, not just the girls but the whole bar. A chorus of admirers tumbled into snorts and heehaws. Even the band stopped playing. Swells of cheering overwhelmed him, men slapped him on the back, and mugs of beer sloshed behind him on the bar.

And by now, Mr. Gwynn was sure he could hear that laughter, for real.

He lifted his head, gingerly, and stared down past his feet at the jail. At first, all he noticed was that he was wearing only one shoe. A moment later, his red, swollen eyes focused in surprise on the denouement of another night of the warden’s debauch.

And the instant that Mr. Gwynn began to question why so much was going on in the parking lot of the county jail at 5 in the morning, his excesses from the previous evening welled up like an orchestra and gripped his head and his stomach in a simultaneous convulsion of pain, nausea and temporary blindness.

Had he been in a contemplative mood, he might have mentally added to his list of reasons why the ditch made a perfect early morning haven: No one cares if you throw up. In fact, reasonable, respectable people would tell him, Yes, yes, by all means. Go to the ditch over there and throw up.

But he wasn’t thinking about any of that. He just turned his head and vomited. His view of the parking lot shifted to dark green grass and then faded away altogether to white and then red.

He let his head slap mercifully back into the cool November mud.

The Strange Death of Lulu Bailey, Part 1

Now. Don’t ask me why, but the other day I was clicking in and out of the Times Machine, which I don’t know if that is just for subscribers or what. But never mind that; try to pay attention. I was clicking in and out and reading about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand.

You know, HEIR TO AUSTRIA’S THRONE IS SLAIN, and like that.

The Times article was brief, but accurate, and gave no hint of the paroxysm of global grief to come. Anyway, I click to the next day, and the archduke’s murder is again the lede, this time in a piece discussing the conspiracy, which was headlined SEE SERB PLOT IN ROYAL MURDERS.

I click to the next day, July 1, 1914, and was surprised to see that Europe had already fallen out of the lede. And off the front page. I clicked to the next day and forgot all about the coming conflagration after reading this headline:

DICTOGRAPH PUT
IN MURDER ROOM
BY MRS. CARMAN

…Now that is what I call a brite.

I start to read the article and quickly realize I’ve missed Chapter 1. I click back to July 1, and there it is, in Column 4: WOMAN SHOT DEAD IN DOCTOR’S OFFICE.

Carman House  (LOC)

The Carman house in Freeport. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

So. To catch you up. It’s 1914. Europe is grimly flexing its muscles for war. Mexico is convulsed by revolution. Theodore Roosevelt is hee-hawing in every auditorium that will open its doors to him. And the lede article in The Times is datelined Freeport, Long Island, and it concerns the murder of one Lulu Bailey, wife of a prosperous hat maker.

And it is a lulu of a tale, too. For the better part of July lurid headlines would appear on the front page of The Times as regular as signposts. All for a crime that no one has ever been punished for.

This is what happened. Mrs. Bailey had gone to home office of Dr. Edwin Carman, one of Freeport’s leading citizens and the owner of one of its most glamorous homes. And the good doctor was horrified to relate that some time after 7 p.m., as he was coming back into the room to see Mrs. Bailey, he heard glass breaking and then a gunshot. Mrs. Bailey sank to the ground. She was shot through the lung, and died almost immediately.

The Times article on July 1 provides a sketch of the crime. Dr. Carman reported seeing a man’s hand and a flash of fire in the window. The window screen, with hinges at the top of the frame, had been propped open. Glass from the window was found on the ground outside. The bullet that killed Mrs. Bailey entered her right shoulder and lodged under her left breast.

Dr. Carman told the police he had never met Mrs. Bailey before. Mrs. Bailey’s husband, William, when reached at his home in Hempstead, was initially skeptical that his wife was even at a doctor’s office.

Now. Obviously, I’ve already spoiled the first surprise, but it gets better.

The lede in The Times on July 2 was the revelation that, just a few hours after the death, the doctor’s wife, Florence, had removed a recording device she had surreptitiously installed in the doctor’s offices. (I know!)

It seems that Mrs. Carman did not trust her husband. In fact, she had told people in the dictograph company’s showroom that she sometimes kept an eye on Dr. Carman through the very window Mrs. Bailey was shot from. But, before you get any ideas, Mrs. Carman said she had been in her bedroom the whole time. She assured the police she had never seen Mrs. Bailey before, “dead or alive.”

Day 3’s article focuses on the search for the murder weapon. But it includes other telling details, the first of which is the obvious embarrassment of the Freeport police. The chief had boasted to reporters that the crime scene, under heavy guard, was being professionally and proficiently processed. Yet Mrs. Carman had had no trouble hauling away a large piece of electronic equipment. Chagrined, the chief brought in reinforcements, and the Carman home, which was daily thronged by rubbernecking yokels, took on the appearance of an armed camp.

Even so, the investigation was perhaps already off the rails. The hounds called in by the police to catch the scent of the killer led officers on a leisurely five-mile stroll, to no avail. The dogs “sat down and licked their paws,” the report in The Times said.

Aggressive news coverage — the correspondent for The Times bragged of having braved “a high fence and two bulldogs” in an attempt to sneak into the Carmans’ home — had forced the authorities to postpone the coroner’s inquest. New details seemed to emerge with each advancing hour. Reporters were obsessing over discrepancies in police statements and larding their reports with criticism, with special venom for the local Elks lodge — of which Dr. Carman, the police chief and the coroner were members. After a particularly snide briefing by the coroner, the report in The Times made clear that he “was not a physician.”

Above it all, there were rumors that private investigators and state authorities were being asked to take over the investigation.

Two witnesses came forward to say they saw a man in a straw hat sprinting from the Carman home immediately after the shot was fired. Another witness said he saw a mysterious “woman in white” in the doctor’s office just before the shooting. A third challenged the doctor’s claim that he speedily called for help.

There was even a bizarre, and incomplete, insinuation about the physical condition of Mrs. Bailey’s body. Apparently, one of the doctors who performed the autopsy at first disagreed in some way with the coroner about the state of the victim’s body. At the inquest, the doctors seemed to have their story straight about the “condition of the organs,” the Times correspondent wrote. “There was nothing divulged as to the rumors which had arisen in this connection.”

What rumors? Whatever they were, they were bad enough that Mrs. Bailey’s elderly mother was moved to address reporters on the subject, but only to say that before her daughter was killed no one had said anything crossways about her. “I always felt that those rumors raised since the shooting were false and slanderous,” the victim’s mother said, “and now the autopsy proves them to be so.” (Did it?!)

And, finally, it was revealed that Mrs. Carman had once confronted Dr. Carman and slapped a woman he was with. When asked about this by a mob of reporters, “Dr. Carman was visibly ill at ease over this question, and sought to curtail the interview immediately,” according to The Times report.

On July 4, the lede headline in The Times was MRS. CARMAN NOW IDENTIFIED AS THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

To be continued.

Chapter 13: (Dream Sequence)

IMG_20130407_222608

His dream was often the same. It was like this:

Stenson came into the front room, and through the large picture window he could see an enormous, somewhat terrifying figure. It was a man, a plump giant with pink, greasy skin. He was standing unshod on the short sidewalk leading to the front door. He was facing directly at Stenson.

The man was easily seven feet tall or more, with meaty shoulders and sausage-size fingers. He was wearing a worn, stained open-necked shirt with laces at the collar. His head was nearly egg-shaped, with a sparse crown of reddened skin peaking above a ring of wiry blond hair.

His face was a study in dull expressions. It was dotted with sprigs of beard. Hanging below a bulbous nose was a large, open mouth and an untidy arrangement of teeth. In the center were black, beady eyes that gazed unerringly, but not exactly threateningly, through the window back at Stenson.

A few moments passed.

Stenson realized that neither he or the giant had moved an inch. He resolved to break the stalemate.

He glanced to his left. Initially, he had a mind to move in that direction, toward the door leading to the kitchen. There was a screen he could close, a back door he could walk out of. But something made him stop.

He noticed that, even though he was not looking at the giant in the window, it was clear that they were both looking at the same spot. Stenson switched his eyes back to the giant, and the giant’s eyes clicked back onto his. Stenson felt a chill.

A small crest of drool passed over the giant’s lips and down his gnarled chin. Before it got far, a leathery tongue slipped out from behind the teeth and wiped it away.

In his mind, Stenson now counted the number of steps to the front door. Then his eyes involuntarily glanced in that direction. Stenson grimaced and closed his eyes.
The giant’s eyes did, too.

The two were staring at each another again.

…He sat bolt upright. He was in bed.

At that instant, he would liked to have said that he had no idea where he was. People are always waking up, he had read, and not knowing where they were. But the eerie blue glow of the white carpet in nighttime, the dark trim of the wallpaper, the inky hues of the blankets, each of these were sufficient to orient him. He was in wife’s childhood bedroom in a lonely farmhouse.

She was sleeping inches away. He was wide awake.

He sighed and wiped his face with his right hand. His eyes drifted from the half-open blinds covering the window to a toy cradle across from the foot of the bed, the settled on the blank face of a doll. Two dolls, actually.

One had a big head, a pouting mouth and no eyes. The effect was disturbing. The doll’s face seemed to be frozen in indignation. The second doll was smaller. Its face was ravaged by decayed plastic and scuff marks. Arranged as they were, the dolls seemed like an omen. On the left hand, demonic possession; on the right, disease and despair.

He wiped his face again.

Outside he could hear the wind. Inside he could hear the furnace.

He looked out into the hall. The carpet glowed all the way to the bathroom. He could see the wall-hangings and…

…Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the black-eyed doll was gone.

Again, he was dreaming.

Stenson was in an expansive living room, black with nighttime. It was quiet. On one wall was a large fireplace built from stone. The hearth had a ledge across the front of it, like a step in a great public building. There was firewood stacked on either side. Across from that was a broad, blank wall, framed by twin floor lamps.

In the middle of the room sprawled a cold, leather sectional couch. Pillows dotted its dark surface.

Stenson was standing there. It was dark. He waited to see if his eyes would adjust, but there was no moon. Ahead of him, a stereo receiver shone a indistinct green spotlight on the carpet in front of it. But the light did not reach far. Mostly his eyes played tricks on him with faint sparks of color.

He gingerly raised a foot and nudged it forward.

He took another step. He stopped and waited again.

The house was profoundly quiet. So quiet that the sheer serenity of it seemed to rush in his ears like surf.

Stenson was not alone. There were seven beings sleeping peacefully not far away. His wife, several in-laws and a Cairn terrier. Now and then, he believed he could hear a snore or sigh from behind a closed door. But quiet would quickly crash over him again.

He took another step and was jarred by the hard edge of a coffee table. Or an end table.

It wasn’t his house. He didn’t know what it was.

Come to think of it, he did not even know why he was awake. The kitchen, with its cold pitchers of water and juice, was behind him. The bathroom was down the hall, next to where he had been sleeping.

Why was he standing in the living room?

Stenson stood still, still hoping for some depth and clarity to sharpen the edges of the vague shapes that gathered around him. The couch he could recognize; it dominated the room. He knew there was a recliner in the corner. He knew there was a long glass coffee table, littered with home magazines and financial newspapers.

The rest of the room — where he had spent several of the previous afternoons — was a mystery to him.

He sighed. He raised his foot again — and at that moment two powerful hands gripped his elbows from behind.

His eyes widened. His heart lurched into a brisk beat. Hidden fingers tightened; he could not move.

Stenson tried to make himself talk. But he couldn’t. He found that he couldn’t see.
He couldn’t hear anything other than a low, mournful hooting noise. It was an elongated note, growing in strength, the sound of a cartoon owl. Stenson realized with a start that he was making the noise.

He sat bolt upright in bed, again.

He looked from the window to the blue-hued white carpet. And from there to the small toy cradle, and the lifeless eyes staring back at him.