In Act 1, A Willful Act, we were introduced to Nora, and learned about the charred body she and boyfriend York found in the Keys. The dead man was a famous, reclusive French rock n pop lyricist and poet. Nearly 20 years later, she feels compelled to tell the dead man’s story, which is her story also. NOTE: you’re reading a lst draft, not the final product.
Act 2: An Act of Conscience
From the Journal of Eugene Delacroix, “What inspires … is not new ideas, but the obsession with the idea—that what has already been said is still not enough.”
Cesare Pavase’ Journal entry found among Chaz Delacroix’s papers: “In his Purgatorio, Dante never turns back to survey the panorama…he is not really describing a journey, but expounding a creed, using the scene and making it visible … Thus he’s not obliged to respect the natural logic of reality.” The word Fascists was scribbled in the right hand margin next to this entry.
Chaz Delacroix hit song lyric fragment ‘Typhoon Hurricane’: “Dusk, when darkness calls—or the grave—and a triple moon beckons; I know what comes next—the Her-i-cane I can’t explain. She drops down and we go—another round…”
Excerpt from Nora McGreer’s Baffling Bulb blogsite: The next morning while sipping a café con leche and skimming the local newspaper, I found a small item on the back page, where the shark attacks and tourist muggings were usually buried. The article said the charred body of Hilaire Charles Delcroix was discovered early Sunday morning in an undisclosed location on one of the lower keys. The county sheriff’s office was investigating the matter but it appears to be an intended suicide. Mr. Delcroix will be interred Friday in the Francis Street cemetery. No family members were available for comment.
My hands shook; I nearly sloshed the cup’s contents all over the scarred table top. Earlier, I’d been reading alleged suicide notes of famous people and I suppose I was on edge. Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Kevin Carter wrote, ‘I’m haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of trigger happy madmen.’ Actor George Sanders called the world he was leaving a ‘sweet cesspool.’ Pavese’s suicide note said he ‘forgives everyone.’ What were Chaz’ last words, last thoughts?
“Merde, only three sentences.” I blurted aloud. “There’s so much more; a few lines on the back page won’t do. You must have been important to someone.” I slammed my fist on the table. This time my coffee did slosh out of the cup.
York hollered from the bedroom, “What are you yammering about? Hey, where’s my other work boot sweetcakes?”
I mopped up the spill, chugged the remains, and added the cup to the pile in the sink. From the mud porch, I fetched the boot I’d retrieved from the bedroom floor earlier this morning and cleaned. “You’re welcome. I have errands to run today and may be bartending tonight. There’s fried chicken and crab salad in the fridge, otherwise, you’re on your own for meals.”
He grabbed me round the waist and ran his fingers up and down my arm while humming a few lines from a song he was working on. “You’re my crib, the crash pad on the psychic beach I dreamed…catlike, you rush out and in, hey baby, let’s combine—your element with mine. Whata you think?” He slipped on his newly cleaned boot, tucked in his Tshirt, and headed towards the kitchen door. “Damn, I’m gonna be late again. And I have a gig tonight. You coming?”
“I think you sounded like a cheap guitar at a honky tonk bar” I replied, adding “no, didn’t you hear me again—I’m bartending tonight…” as York exited. I quickly loaded sink contents into the tiny dishwasher. I had no classes to teach and placed a call to the bar where I was scheduled to work that night. I told them I had the flu. Over the next few hours, I poured through the books I’d bought last night until it was time to pick up Alma.
In my journal I penciled in a list of questions and added a Eugene Delacroix quote at the top of page, ‘Each of the beings necessary to our existence who disappear take away a whole world of feelings that no other relationship can revive.’ Haunting words, I mused. I didn’t know much about Chaz Delacroix except that his music and lyrics had been recorded by rock and pops greatest. I knew zip about his personal life, but I intended to rectify the situation. I did, however, know a bit about suicide. While still in my teens, I attended back to back funerals for two friends that allegedly committed suicide.
One friend was a Hilton Head trust fund brat. I was one of the few that knew why her Fendi bags were fake, her town car rides weren’t from a family chauffeur but were occasional rentals, and no one was ever invited to her sprawling home. Her parents were broke and living in Costa Rico; most of their furniture and artwork had been sold. They left her behind to deal with real estate agents and creditors. Her parents couldn’t touch the money left her by her grandparents, but she could, and had been emptying it to keep up appearances and pay the mortgage. She also deposited money monthly into an account her parents used to supplement their scaled down life in the tropics.
I knew what it was like to be an only child with absentee parents, and included her in my many school and extra-curricular projects. She seemed determined to fix the mess her parents created, but I didn’t know the full extent of that mess or of her angst. A few days before we graduated high school, the house sold. She had power of attorney and I went with her to sign the papers the same day we received our diplomas. The plan was she would stay in our pool cabana house for a few days and then join her parents. She’d rented a car so she could tie up loose ends—close accounts, take outgrown personal items to charity stores, say her goodbyes. Late the next night, the police appeared at our door. They told my parents she’d crashed her car into a tree. The officers needed to locate her parents. The death was ruled accidental; and though her parents hadn’t showed up for her graduation, they arrived in time for her funeral and pay out. They’d taken out a multi- million dollar policy on their daughter. With the insurance money and proceeds from the house sale, they were soon solvent again and made plans to move—to the Hamptons.
The superstitious like to say bad news comes in threes. A few days later, a boy I’d dated in the 10th grade overdosed at a pharm party. In fact, two deaths were reported, though I didn’t personally know the girl that’d also od’ed at the same party. My high school graduation present was a timely ten country, six weeks tour of Europe. Soon after I returned from ‘the continent’, I headed off to college. During the next dozen years, I made only a few visits to Hilton Head, and not a single visit to the flat gravestone that marked the location of my friend’s remains.
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Ten minutes after picking up Alma in front of her parent’s grocery store, we walked through the rusted gate at the front of Charles Delcroix’s rental house. A side door was open and a stout woman wearing a loose fitting, yellowish cotton flowered shift and a beige colored bib apron was mopping the wooden floor. She had fleshy, but surprisingly strong looking leathery arms. Several boxes near the door contained books of various sizes and shapes. Another box overflowed with oval and rectangular shapes wrapped in newspaper. Alma announced our presence several times but the woman, who was humming, didn’t respond, so she walked over and tapped her on the shoulder. The woman spun around, startled.
“Hello Delores. My parents send their regards, and thought you might like this.” Alma pulled a gingham ribbon wrapped square box from her bag and handed it to the woman, who dropped her broom and clutched the box to her ample bosom.
“Oh you’re the dearest girl. No, you’re a married woman now. Congratulations, and thank your parents for me. Chocolate covered caramels from See’s are my absolute favorites. Oh, my Howie used buy me these very same caramels.” She caressed the gingham bow and for an instant, was lost in reverie. Then she gave Alma a quick hug and asked who I was.
“This is my good friend Nora. She teaches at the junior college and the reason we’re here, well, she and her boyfriend were the ones that found Mr. Delacroix’ body.” Alma related the story I’d told her the previous evening and after shaking their heads over his sad ending, both women waxed on about what a wonderful, generous customer and tenant he had been.
I’d wandered over to a bamboo table and picked up an ornately framed picture showing what I guessed was a formal portrait of a young Chaz with his mother. A slightly pudgy, sunburned boy, on the verge of adolescence, and sporting grey swim trunks and a neon orangey red T shirt that nearly matched the color of his arms and face, raced into the room and grabbed the picture out of my hands.
“If you want it back, I need 50 cents for the ice cream man. Hurry up.” he shouted and waved his arms in the air.
His mother’s face turned redder than her sons. It was beet red. “Kirky, that’s very rude. Shame on you. Oh I just don’t know…” She stammered and turned slightly, and tucked the box of caramels into an apron pocket. “Put that picture down right now and apologize.”
“Oh he’s just being a boy. What boy doesn’t love ice cream?” I rummaged in my hobo bag and found a crumpled dollar bill. “I’ll gladly trade the dollar for another look at the picture. Deal?”
“I’m no boy.” He stamped his foot, snatched the bill, and threw the picture at me as he sailed out the door. I fumbled but caught it and managed to put it back on the table. “Kids, always in a hurry to grow up.” After an awkward pause, I cleared my throat. Mrs. Roland, Alma told you I work at the local college. I have a graduate degree in both 18th century and contemporary literature, and I’m familiar with the book of poetry and the ballads your tenant wrote. I was hoping to learn more about him, and . . . “
“Please, call me Delores. Oh he was a good enough tenant; as I told the sherrif’s deputy earlier, he always paid his rent in advance. But he was a might peculiar, if you know what I mean. Too foreign for my tastes, played those mournful tunes and the piano at all hours; it was lucky for him my hearing isn’t that good after . . . well never mind. Just look at those brazen pictures on the walls. Who are those half-clad people? He said they were famous. Now I know my Hollywood stars. I don’t know any of them.”
I only remember him having two visitors, and neither of them stayed long. The man was smartly dressed, and had a silver briefcase. It must have been some sort of business meeting. Now that woman, well she was trashy, you know the type, too much make-up, flimsy top, short, loud skirt, and I’m sure she’d been drinking. In fact, when she and Mr. Delcroix left a few minutes later, she was holding a bottle to her lips and trying to coax Charlie to take a slug. I was glad to see he had the sense not to bring her by again. Delores’ rheumy eyes looked for a soupcon of sympathy from us. Alma nodded.
He said he’d been living in America for half a dozen years, also mentioned being in Miami and Los Angeles, but I don’t think he ever acclimated, if you know what I mean. I had to store a room full of perfectly good wicker furniture to accommodate his things, he favored dark furniture, and this piano. Of course, he did give Kirky lessons and when he discovered I was fond of licorice, he gave me a bottle of spirits that tastes just like licorice. I forget the name. I take a sip of it whenever I need to settle my stomach.”
“Are the licorice spirits in a green bottle labelled Pernod?
“Why yes, I believe so.”
“Mrs. Roland, Delores, would you like help packing up his things? That’s amazing the police said it was OK. I could take the boxes to the flea market or you could donate them to . . .” A buzzer peeled next door at her house and Dolores Roland excused herself. I took the opportunity to search through Chaz belongings, while Alma watched for Kirky’s return. Although the walls were white, everything in the main room was either dark mahogany or some shade of blue. His style seemed to be French Provincial meets Moroccan beach bohemia. There was a blue marlin in the middle of the back wall. It was surrounded by what Dolores had said were framed pictures of Chaz and various celebrities he knew. They were famous people indeed, rock star royalty, European film directors, artists, writers, and a few I had to admit I didn’t recognize.
As I headed into the bedroom, Alma hollered she had to get back to the store but I didn’t need to drive her. She wanted to walk and stretch her legs. I hollered back I’d call her tomorrow. In the bedroom the vibe was more Indonesian. There was a papasan chair and a teakwood dresser and matching armoire and night stands. The 4 poster bed looked plushy soft and sported a brightly, ornately embroidered mandala pattern comforter. White mosquito netting hung across the four posters and dragged on the floor. There was nothing under the bed but a few dust bunnies.
I was grateful I’d partially emptied my canvas hobo bag earlier. Into it I shoved paper and hard back books and in his nightstand I found what appeared to be journals bulging with odd bits of paper inserts. The armoire held a well curated assortment of casual and business attire. The white tiled bathroom contained an assortment of mostly European toiletry items and way too many good old American plastic pill cannisters. I left most of them behind but threw a half dozen in my bag and a nearly empty bottle of eau de toilet. The smell was intriguing—hyssop, balsam, and something slightly spicy and exotic. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to five finger these items. I only knew Chaz wouldn’t miss them.
Back in the living room, I added sheet music from the piano bench and letters from a drawer in his desk. For a long moment, I grappled with my conscience—the rightness or wrongness of my thievery. Dicken’s Fagan won. I reasoned I’d be far more sorry if I didn’t examine Chaz’ belongings and find out why he’d done it—or why someone did it to him. I’d failed my high school friend. I wouldn’t fail Chaz. I was about to re-examine the picture I’d picked up from the bamboo table when behind me a voice yelled boo. I jumped and dropped the picture on the table. It set off a domino effect, collapsing other framed photos and toppling several antique porcelain Harlequins.
Kirky was back. His face was streaked with multi-colored ice cream smears, so was his T shirt. “I saw what you did. It’s gonna cost you $5 or I’ll tell.”
I started to mutter under my breath, but saw Dolores approaching across the lawn. I wasn’t sure what it was he thought I’d done but didn’t want to take any chances. I pulled a five from my wallet. “Fine, here’s your extortion money. Now skedaddle.” He grabbed the fiver and ran past his mother towards the bungalow they shared. She yelled at him not to touch anything until he’d washed his face and hands.
Dolores explained she’d taken a call from a couple that might like to rent the bungalow and then flowers arrived addressed to Hilaire Delacroix. The note simply said ‘Love Vito & Angie.’ It seemed strange the Keys’ coconut telegraph advertised the vacancy a mere 24+ hours after Chaz died. Were the flowers intended for his funeral or something else?
Delores added the potential renters were coming over tomorrow but moaned there was so much to be cleaned and disposed of before then. With two pairs of hands, I reminded her, the work would be done in no time. While she tidied the kitchen and emptied the fridge, I cleaned the bathroom and bedroom and was able to check all the dresser drawers, but found nothing of interest. She was annoyed the kitchen was so messy—cluttered with items normally stored in the cupboards, bottles, a cutting board, and an assortment of glasses.
Dolores said he normally kept the counters spotless and told me I could have all the books for the college or flea market. She would take the box of items wrapped in newspaper to the antique store, provided no one came to claim the items. There was no will she knew of—or next of kin. It seemed her conscience was clear. I promised I would give her the cash for whatever the boxes fetched, but warned it wouldn’t be much. The charity shop would be grateful for the high quality clothing.
She smiled and eyed the piano, which held a blue and white lacquered tray and assortment of liquors.
“Help yourself to those,” she offered, adding she didn’t drink except for a little sweet wine now and then and a nip of the licorice liquor Charles had given her.
I thanked her and carefully placed a bottle of brandy and another of Eau du Poire in one of the bags. While Delores carried out a bag of trash, I added a few framed pictures to my purse and snapped pictures of other photos.
In total I loaded eight boxes of Chaz Delacroix’ possessions into my car and five large bags of miscellaneous items that included clothing Delores asked me to dispose of, medicine cabinet and drawer contents, and a folk guitar. I convinced her to leave the furniture Chaz had bought in place for now as well as the piano. It gave an upscale look to the cottage. She could sell the piano later, or perhaps Kirky might like it. I said I’d ask my friends if they wanted to buy any of the wicker furniture she was storing, and cut some frangipani from a bush in the backyard. The fragrant pink flowers posed nicely in a water pitcher we set on the counter top. Their scent, combined with the lemon wax and the Murphy’s Oil Soap we’d used lent the cottage an odor of newness.
On the other hand, I smelt ripe with salty sweat. I was still concerned the police might wonder why Chaz’ possessions had been cleared away so quickly, but grateful I had them now. It was sad the police would not be investigating what they were sure was another suicide. I’d recently read the suicide rate in the Keys was 26% per 100,000 residents/visitors. I thanked Dolores for sharing her memories, and told her I’d be in touch soon, then raced home to secure several of the bags and boxes at the back of my bedroom closet and take a quick shower. York was still at work and I wanted to avoid having to explain to him what I’d done, what I’d acquired.
I’d left three boxes of books in the trunk of my car. I’d already thumbed through them. No secret notes fell out. None of the books had annotations. Most of the volumes were paperbacks in French. I recognized some titles by Jean Paul Sartre and Andre Gide; a dozen bodice ripping Angelique novels by Serge and Anne Golon; Le Petit Prince by Saint-Exupery, a few non-fiction books by surrealist writers; and dozens of French translations of American 19th and early 20th century classics. I’d take these boxes to the college campus librarian and see if there was anything she wanted before offering the rest at the weekend flea market. I draped an old blanket over the boxes and bags in my closet, just in case York snooped around.
As the sun was beginning its celebrated descent at the end of Duval Street, I grabbed a bottle of dago red and some food supplies from the fridge and freezer and tossed the items into a worn cloth grocery bag. I arrived at Dorian Alexa’s houseboat in time to witness a cherry red sun splash dramatically into the blue black Atlantic. Dorian embraced both me and the bottle of red wine and pulled me inside where a pot of Choppino bubbled merrily on the stove and provided a welcoming garlicy greeting.
He helped me unload the goodies I’d brought. “I made extra appetizers last week and froze them—sausage and bread crumb stuffed mushrooms and spanakopita. What a pain that was to make, having to hand brush all those layers. Just uncover the foil and toss them in the oven for 10 minutes. The Boston Crème Pie is still a bit frozen but should be ready in an hour or so. Oh, I’ve so much to tell you. I’m not sure one bottle of red will do it at all,” I chuckled.
“Mi scusi,” he said and rummaged in a cupboard, then placed two additional bottles of red wine on the counter. Confesso, tersro mio.”
Dorian was a war baby, born in a rustic cabin in the Italian Alps to an Italian father and Greek mother. The cabin was used as their summer getaway; it wasn’t insulated but they managed to make do during the war years. Dorian’s father had been injured in WWI. A doctor painstakingly removed shrapnel from his legs rather than amputate but could do nothing about the mustard gas that damaged and scarred his lungs. When war broke out in September 1939, Dorian’s parents made a timely retreat from their seaside home on a cobblestone street in Genoa to their summer home. He was born early the following year. The family remained hidden until the war ended. When this isolated child was introduced to large scale life and people of many nationalities and traditions, he became passionate about travel. By the time he was 17 he found a way to explore every part of the world, serving as ship cook, engineer, lst and 2nd mate, and finally as captain on multiple cargo and passenger ships.
By the time we’d finished the bottle of red I’d brought and most of the appetizers, I’d told him about the dastardly discovery, making up with Alma, and how that led to my trip to the dead man’s cottage and the pilfering of his papers and books, but I hadn’t mentioned his name. When I did, Dorian slammed down his glass. Behind the beard I’m sure deep frown lines formed.
“You’re sure, cara mio? Absoluto?”
“Yes, I’m absolutely sure. You knew him?”
“We were acquainted—at Captain Tony’s bar, we recognized each other as fellow orphans, refuges, inbetweeners. We’d talk about the old country, how things changed after the war. We tried to figure out the crazy Americans of our adopted country and the semi-crazy Conch natives. You said he set himself on fire. What in the name of Santa Maria… What do you call it in English—self-immolate? I know this because I saw it happen in Thailand, two monks set fire to themselves. Mai no, one doesn’t commit such a grievous act except as a major protest or religious sacrifice. As far as I knew, he was agnostic, or atheistic. No, someone killed this wizard of words, this gentle man.”
I grabbed my hobo bag and dumped half the contents on the counter. “That’s what I thought. We’ll have to find out who did it and why. This is what I took from his bedroom. I think these may be his journals. One might be a song or poem workbook. But before we start sorting, shouldn’t we feed our grey cells and have some of that Choppino—to keep up our strength?”
Dorian nodded, opened another bottle of red, and grabbed a ladle. I’d missed lunch and had two bowls of his stew and nearly half a loaf of well buttered Cuban bread before my stomach was satisfied. Dorian barely ate. He thumbed through several books and offered to translate one of the journals, rather, write down anything of interest and relay his findings to me. He also took several letters and documents written in Italian. I told him the police mentioned there’d been two other killings recently—a cat had been strangled here and on Cedar Key, they found bones and remains in a shallow grave.
Dorian nodded and started to say something, but instead mumbled a never mind, and handed me a thick slice of Boston cream pie and a sniffer of Strega, a sweet, minty/woodsy Italian liquor. I helped Dorian wash up and put files and papers back in my bag. I told him I had a double shift tomorrow—teaching all day and bartending at Cayo Manana from 5 to midnight and needed some shut eye.
My cottage was hot and humid. The Casablanca fan and AC had been turned off so I cranked everything back up and took a tepid shower. York had been here. There was a wet towel draped over a kitchen chair and the remains of crab salad and an empty beer bottle on the kitchen table. Perhaps it was time for a new roommate. He was late again with his part of the rent and hadn’t repaid the $50 I’d loaned him to buy new tires for his scooter. I climbed into our unmade bed with Chaz’ journal, a notepad, and the French dictionary I’d just bought. I must have dozed off in record time.
The ghost or specter of Chaz found his way into my dreams that night. Some say dreams allow an opening in our conscious mind so the mystical realm can squeeze through, whisper messages from the dead, tweak our ability to glimpse the future. Chaz pleaded with and threatened me. I must avenge him, I must let her know, I must beware—he repeated over and over. It was a typical haunting rant and I’ve no idea how my dream self remained calm and tried to form questions to ask him. He wasn’t the first specter to inhabit my dreams. At least he was in human form. In one of the Caribe isles I’d visited creepy cheruby babies called kokomas beat your body with tiny fists and yelled at you dream self. Fox specters talk to you in your dreams in China. I blame the Strega Dorian gave me earlier.
We were in a room I didn’t recognize, filled with floor to ceiling windows, exotic plants, and all sorts of instruments—a musical greenhouse? He was wearing dark jeans with a pressed crease down the middle and a fitted paisley shirt. He was pacing, I think, though I couldn’t see the floor for the clouds of smoke so he could have been floating. I had so many questions to ask him, but we aren’t always in control of what we can do in our dreams. I was able to breathe on a window and write WHO?
“Mai no,” he replied. He’d lapsed into French and south of France argot I didn’t understand. “I don’t know; venge moi” he repeated over and over. “Dite-lui que..” Tell her what I wondered.
I couldn’t understand the rest. I managed to write DANGER? on the window pane and point. I awoke with a start. York was shaking me. I was icy cold and disoriented.
York grabbed the journal and several bits of paper fluttered onto the bed. “What’s this, one of your student’s diaries? No, it’s in some danged foreign language. It’s a witch book, right? That’s what gave you night scares. You were screaming when I walked in, and what’s with the AC at freezer settings? We gotta turn off the artic air. ”
I grabbed the journal from him, stuffed the paper that had fallen out back in the journal, and noted the time. “It’s 3 frigging am. Let’s talk in the morning.”
York was a tiny bit drunk. He smelt of smoke and sweat. “What did you do today sweetcakes?” He lunged for me, missed, and collapsed on the bed. “Sorry,” he slurred, “you were having a nightmare about the wicked awful burnt man, weren’t you?”
I think I said not really and groggily piled the notepad, journal, and dictionary on the night stand. By the time I’d turned down the AC, tidied the kitchen, and dumped towels and dirty clothes in the washer York was snoring. “Petits misericordes,” I whispered aloud, little mercies indeed, and turned out the bedside light. As I drifted back to sleep, the ghost of Chaz added “je suis reconnaissant pour le petits miseriocordes.”
To be continued…