Lisa Brianka’s arrest came as a shock to all of us. Even me. I’m the Mountain Ridge snoop, so usually I’m way ahead of the gossip, and I can even sometimes predict things like this. What I felt that morning was closer to fear than to surprise.
When I stopped by the Yorkie cafe the day after Lisa’s arrest, customers were discussing the latest Lisa gossip.
“Do you think she did it?”
“Of course, she done it.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“Don’t mean she killed anyone.”
I glanced around at the dirty floor, the wooden tables, and the toy-sized juke boxes on the counter. Peter Paul and Mary sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Don’t I wish.
Everyone in this town knows what a snoop I am, so people were probably wishing I would do just that - leave on a jet plane or a bus. Anything to get me out of town.
They quieted down. That was all right. I’d heard enough.
I glanced at a copy of today’s newspaper lying on the counter. The Beatles had broken up. Darn. Richard Nixon defended his decision to invade Cambodia. The war in Viet Nam was as unpopular as ever.
I know a lot about unpopularity. I’m not even a war, just a girl trying to escape boredom.
Bev, the waitress, poured me a cup of coffee just the way I like it, strong and black. “Hi, Penny. What’ll it be this morning?” she asked.
“A grilled cheese with a thick slice of tomato. Hash browns. Keep the coffee coming.”
“You got it.” Before she turned to put my order in, she asked, “You know anything?”
“The alphabet, the state capitals and my multiplication tables right up to 13 times 13.”
“Don’t be a smart ass,” she told me.”Were you there when they made the arrest?”
“Did you hear anything?”
“What they said on the radio.”
“But you’ll tell me when you find out anything?”
“Depends on what I find out.”
“You know I could spit in your hash browns,” she said.
“You won’t though.”
“Don’t be so sure.” Bev took off with her order pad.
I smiled and waved at Elaine, the elderly cook, who was moving slowly about the kitchen; her arthritis was probably acting up. She ignored me. She’s got some kind of grudge. She says I stole some papers she threw out years ago. What can I tell you? They were at the curb, and I noticed them. She could have burned them. She could have read them herself before she put them on the curb for anyone to take.
I took a deep breath and sipped my coffee. I didn’t look around. I knew the other customers were looking at me. The Peter, Paul and Mary Record stopped. Then the only voice I heard was Elvis Presley’s. He was singing “Suspicious Minds.”
At least the waitress talks to me.
I was just finishing my sandwich when Leo Olson came in. He used to be sheriff here in Mountain Ridge. Olson arrested me back when I was eleven or twelve on a shop lifting charge.
It was a fifty cent tube of lipstick. I could have bought it, but how much fun would that have been?
Leo was 70 or older, but still tall and thin like teen age basketball player. His grey hair was cut short; his steely gray eyes looked at everyone like they were murder suspects or drunken drivers. His skin was weathered like a fisherman’s skin. Yet he wore his years well. I would see him walking and even jogging around town, fit as a man in his thirties.
I started walking toward the door. Then I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask. “Is Lisa Brianka all right?”
The stillness in the room was complete. Every other customer was wondering the same thing, but no one else was brave enough to ask.
Leo sipped his coffee really slow, and then took a deep breath. Cops know that silence makes the rest of us feel uncomfortable and even guilty. Finally he said, “I ain’t a cop anymore.”
“Your son’s the sheriff,” I reminded him. “Is Lisa being treated okay?”
“Far as I know. Miles ain’t here. He’s getting ready to fly down to Louisiana.” Surprise. I was getting information from a cop, but then the sheriff’s comings and goings wouldn’t be secret. Or would they? At least Sheriff Miles Olson had something to occupy him other than poor Lisa.
Norman Cain, a serial killer awaiting execution in Louisiana was spilling his guts, delaying his execution for crimes committed down south by telling authorities where more bodies were buried in the tunnels under and around Mountain Ridge. Dozens of state cops, crime scene investigators and reporters were in town covering the excavations. I supposed Miles’ presence was now and then called for down south.
“Our sheriff’s a busy boy,” I said. “He arrested Lisa last night, and then what? Today he gets on an airplane and flies south.”
“He’s busy,” Leo agreed. I wasn’t going to get anymore out of him.
“Tell Lisa I’m thinking of her, will you?” I said after a pause.
“I ain’t goin’ near that crazy,” Leo said.
I left my car in the cafe parking lot and walked to work. I needed time to think before I got dragged into Lisa and her problems.
When I was younger I used to steal letters from Lisa Mynter’s mail boxes. I don’t do that anymore. But I have read Lisa’s mail. Her daughter Dorothy was my best friend back in grade school; we were thick as thieves, no pun intended. More like thick as a thief and a fraidy cat. Everything scared Dorothy.
I used to surprise her with my daring. I would go into houses when no one was home. She would wait on the sidewalk, sure I would get caught. She would be wearing dusty gray pedal pushers, scuffed up sneakers and a red t-shirt- always red because she liked red. I would wave at her from a window.
She would duck and hide behind some bushes, so she wouldn’t call attention to me.
“You’re gonna get caught,” she would say when I crawled out usually with a few treasures.
“No I won’t.”
I was never vicious in my stealing. I didn’t take bills or checks or anything that looked like it might have value. I did take Dorothy’s doll. Well, Dorothy gave it to me.
Actually Dorothy wasn’t using it anymore. Her name is Penny, just like my name. Dorothy loved the doll and named it long before she met me. The doll is beautiful.
She is good Penny; I am bad Penny.
Upper Michigan is pasty shops; dirt roads surrounded by trees; hunting cabins; towns with main streets lined with bars instead of stores; men in Green Bay Packer gear; overweight women in blue jeans or, depending on the season, snowmobile suits.
Mountain Ridge is set on the Wisconsin border. Talk to the residents, and they know where to find wild mushrooms, blueberries and deer apples. Few people observe hunting season. Venison is served all year long, and it doesn’t always come from the freezer.
Mountain Ridge is one main street and half a dozen side streets. It’s not one of those towns with more bars than houses, but it’s still a redneck zone. Beyond this business district, there are hundreds of houses. Most residents are sons and daughters of miners. The iron mines played out and were replaced by two paper mills, a label factory and a furniture factory.
Sure we have dentists, doctors, lawyers and teachers, but they’re a minority. Most people here are hunters and gatherers or factory rats, uneducated. There are lakes and the summer homes of some of Michigan’s wealthiest families. But you have to drive out of town to find those homes.
I work for Yvonne Cheney, Lisa Brianka’s sister.
And Vonnie as we all call her was in for a difficult time. The murder Lisa is accused of committing is that of Vonnie’s five year old son, Louis back in 1940.
Why bring this old crime now? Why make an arrest on a cold crime? There isn’t any real new evidence.
You’d have to ask the sheriff that, and he wasn’t available.
I like to think I can stay away from Lisa and her problems, but I knew I’d be dragged in. It was not going to be an easy day at work.
My walk from the cafe to Almasy House was all too short.
Almasy House soon towered above me. It’s a bed and breakfast, museum, and haunted house, but not the kind of haunted house that scares people at Halloween. It’s a real haunted house with verified ghost sightings, built in 1902 as a boarding house for miners. But it served as a hotel too, and several prominent politicians and business men stayed there. It fell into disrepair for a few years and then a mysterious buyer or buyers purchased the property and hired Vonnie to run the place.
For a long time we didn’t know who this mysterious buyer was. Vonnie now knows who owns the house.
So do I? But then I am the kind of person who learns about secrets. That one was easy. Okay, Dorothy, told me. But I would have figured it out.
I know a lot about the Briankas, the Rinaldis, the Cheneys, and the Mynters, the families people around here like to talk about. That doesn’t mean I tell.
What happens within these families usually stays within the families. It is not my fault I hear things.
Almasy House is lofty and rambling. I used to be afraid of the house when I was a kid. Now I work there as a maid, and volunteer at the historical society that rents rooms there. We even keep a small museum and office where we are copying county birth marriage and death records. We’ve been busy copying for some time.
When I got to the house, I tried to sneak past the desk clerk. I clocked in, but then I hid my time sheet in my purse. I hoped that if no one could find me, I could clean a few rooms and, I wouldn’t get dragged into Lisa’s problems.
“Vonnie is waiting for you in her office,” the clerk said.
I knew she would be. Might as well get it over with.
Yvonne Cheney is usually calm and efficient like Donna Reed on that old television program where she played a doctor’s wife with two perfect children. Vonnie looks like a dark haired Donna Reed. But that day in her office, Vonnie looked frazzled like she had just been shocked by a strong current of electricity.
“What’s the charge?” I asked. “It can’t be murder. That’s what everyone is saying, but…”
“Negligent homicide,” she told me.
“What? That’s impossible. I thought the charges would be demised by now.”
“She confessed. That’s what Miles says.”
“Miles is in Louisiana. Or he’s on his way. I talked to his dad at the Yorkie.”
“Well he was here last night, and he’s coming back.”
“Someone must have pinned his badge on his brain,” I said. “Confession. Phooey. That won’t work. Lisa’s mentally ill. She would confess to bombing Pearl Harbor. What are they gonna do? Put her back in Newberry?”
Newberry is the state mental hospital and Lisa had spent some time there. Some people think she never should have left.
Vonnie wiped her eyes. I had never seen her cry. She is usually as calm as a parking meter.
“She didn’t kill your son,” I told her.
“I need you to move into her apartment.” she said.
“I’ve got my own place to stay.”
“Just for awhile. I’ll need you close by. You’ll be my assistant.”
“I don’t want to stay in her apartment.” Lisa stayed above the garage, in what used to be the stables when this house opened. It was a nice efficiency apartment with a kitchen, bedroom, bath and a large living room. It was the apartment, I would have wanted if Lisa had not been living there. But I wasn’t going to tell Vonnie that.
“Think of it as free rent,” she said.
I frowned. “Why can’t I stay at the old Cheney farm house. It’s where I live.” Either way Vonnie Cheney would be my landlady. I did like the idea of free rent and being closer to my work, but I’d be closer to Lisa and her problems too. I was not going to let myself be drawn in any more than I had to.
“I need you here,” Vonnie said, “I have to help Lisa. You have to help me.”
Did I have a choice? I decided it would take me at least an hour to move in.
“I have a cat,” I reminded Vonnie.
“So does Lisa, and Miss Kitty needs to be fed. I don’t know if anyone’s been up there.”
“Just give me the key. I’ll check on Miss Kitty and then go get my things.”
As she searched her desk drawer for the key, Vonnie started detailing her problems. Not only was her sister being charged with negligent homicide, but it the tourist season. And tourists weren’t the only people interested in staying at Almasy House. We had all those cops and reporters taking up the rooms. What would we do with the season regulars when they showed up? That had already been decided.
The cops and reporters agreed to smaller rooms and even doubling up. But it was still a lot more work because we had more guests.
Vonnie said, “We have a historian in Room 217. He’s writing a history of this house. I told him you were the one to talk to, Penny.”
I grimaced. Why me?
Miss Kitty’s litter box just needed a little scooping. She still had some kibble in her bowl. I gave her fresh water and extra kibble.
“I don’t know when you’ll see your mistress again,” I told the cat. “But I’ll take good care of you.”
It was good I had left my car down the street. Walking those few blocks back to it gave me a chance to be away. Would the next few weeks be all that bad? I could probably run Almasy House as well as Vonnie could. I was proud she trusted me with the responsibility.
I wouldn’t talk to reporters, lawyers or police officers about Lisa. I knew too much and I was smart enough not to say anything.
I had free rent for awhile and two cats to take care of. Hadn’t I wanted a second cat for a long time? It would be good for my cat Thaddeus to have a companion and for me to be living closer to work.
Who was I kidding?
The next couple of weeks were going to be hell.
I decided to get a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich to go before driving out to the farm to get my clothes and my cat. The customers at the Yorkie were still gabbing.
“She’s getting off easy,” Bev told me. She gave me a coffee on the house while I waited for my to-go order. “Did you hear? The charge is going to be negligent homicide.”
“They won’t make it stick,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Penny,” she said. “I think they will.”
Some old men sat by the window drinking coffee. “Michigan should have the death penalty like they do down south? They should fry her ass like they’re gonna do to that feller in Louisiana.” One of them said. Bev put her hand on my wrist. “Pretend you don’t hear.”
Questions about the novel so far:
1. Penny Payton admits to being a dishonest person. She has a past that includes stealing and shop lifting. The townspeople don’t trust her. Will she be a reliable narrator?
What do unreliable narrators bring to the stories they tell? 2. Lisa Brianka is described as crazy. Why do you think terms like “Crazy” are sometimes used to describe people at society’s edge?
3. In helping Lisa, Penny has the advantage of her nosiness and even her dishonesty. Why do you think Penny, the community’s bad girl will help Lisa, the town crazy?
4. Penny is NOT a gossip. She keeps the town’s secrets. Does that make you like her more or less?
5. Why do you thin Vonnie, a successful business woman relies on Penny so much? Would you hire a maid with a reputation for stealing and snooping?
6. Lisa’s cat is said to be as crazy as she is. What does this tell us about the community where they live? Spoiler: The cats are safe in this story. It’s just the people who are endangered. The question is about gossip, not about cats.