The farm where I live is on Yellow Creek Road five miles from town. My housemates are hippies. We take college classes in the fall and winter. In summer, we grow our own vegetables, and sell the eggs our hens lay.
I’m the only one in the group with a regular job.
Rent is cheap because we repair what needs to be repaired, and we take care of the animals. If we move out, the animals would go the bigger Cheney farm, 191 acres of crops and dairy cows. The farm lies behind our little sanctuary.
Vonnie’s nephew Dennis and his American Indian wife Dancing Bear run the big farm. Would they buy Yvonne’s five acres if she wanted to sell? I suspected they would. Vonnie might even give it to them.
Sue, one of my roommates met me at the door. “I started packing your things, Mrs. Cheney said she wanted you back in town ASAP.”
Sue wore a blue granny dress, flowers in her hair and a peace sign necklace. I was in black slacks and a white t-shirt , the uniform of an Almasy House maid.
“If I missed anything, I can bring it to town when I do an egg run,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it; I’m probably going to need to get away. Any excuse will do.”
I went into my bedroom. Two suitcases were packed. I’d have to shop for some dresses if I was going to be managing the house. But I would probably want my black slacks and t-shirts too.
I saw the old doll lying on the dresser.
“Do you want to bring that old thing with you?” Sue asked. She was pointing at Dorothy’s doll, Penny.
I put the doll on top of my suitcase. “I’m keeping it for a friend,” I told her. I knew I shouldn’t keep the doll, or if I did I should rename it. How freaky is it to have a doll with the same name as yours?
Buried deep in my closet is a huge cardboard box. This is my box of treasures. I picked up the box, and despite knowing I had to get back to town soon I sorted the contents.
“A Date With the Everly Brothers” phonograph LP.
“Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” by Marty Robbins. LP. (Somebody left these recordings at the Chaney Farm. He wasn’t coming back. So the records are mine.
A tube of lipstick, an umbrella and sunglasses shoplifted from a dime store when I was eleven or twelve.
About a dozen old letters. These are the good ones. The boring letters I toss away or put back.
A bundle of pages that Elaine Mynter, the Yorkie cook, put out by the curb one day in 1960 or 1961.
A notebook I took from Mary Mynter Smith’s closet. There were lots of valuable things in her closet that I could have taken. I just took the old notebook.
Some index cards. The museum where I volunteer is putting all the county records of births, weddings and deaths on index cards. Sometimes I make a copy of the index cards for me. Sometimes I copy the information and take it. There are some secrets this town isn’t ready for.
The county won’t notice them missing.
The phone rang. Sue answered it and I could hear her making excuses.
“Mrs. Cheney says she needs you back right away.”
We carried the box, the suitcases and doll to my car. I noticed the cat carrier sitting on the porch.
“Where’s my cat?” I asked after we had the suitcases in the trunk.
“You could leave Thaddeus here.”
“I want him with me. I had better grab his cat food and litter too.” I didn’t have enough money to buy too many extras. I could always hit Vonnie up for extra money to buy cat food and litter, but I preferred go prepared.
We dragged the sacks of litter and food to the car and then went back to the house. Thaddeus sat in the middle of the living room. “I don’t think he wants to leave,” Sue said.
“He won’t mind it after we’re there. Lisa has a nice apartment.”
“You’ve been in her apartment?” Why was Sue so surprised?
“Several times,“ I told her.
“You’re living in a crazy lady’s apartment, with her cat and how many ghosts? If you’re crazy enough to move to Almasy House, at least leave your cat here. I hear Lisa’s cat is as crazy as she is.”
“We’ll be okay. Remember, we aren’t living in Almasy House. We’re across the parking lot. No ghosts there. At least none that I know of.”
“What if Lisa gets out of jail and doesn’t know you’re staying there and she - I don’t know - shoots you?”
“We’ll be safe,” I assured her.
“The charge is murder,“ Sue said.
“Negligent homicide,“ I corrected her. “She hasn’t been convicted yet.”
“YET,” Sue emphasized the word.
“She didn’t do it, okay. It’s a trumped up charge.”
Thaddeus went willingly into the carrier. He was nervous at first. He usually only goes to the vet, so as soon as he realized this was a different kind of outing, he calmed down.
I talked to him as I drove. “The cat you will be living with is Miss Kitty,” I said. “She is a calico named after Miss Kitty on “Gunsmoke.” She has a short stub of a tail just like you because long ago she got out and came back without the tail. We think she was caught in a trap. Don’t you ever get out on me.”
Thaddeus had lost his tail in a mean winter. He had crawled into a car motor for warmth, and when someone started the engine, his tail was cut off by the fan. That happened before I adopted Thaddeus from the local animal shelter. I make sure he is always safe and warm now.
I figured the two cats would like each other because they had the missing tails in common.
I must have a missing brain to get involved with Lisa Brianka’s troubles. But then I was already involved.
When we got to apartment above the Almasy House garage, Thaddeus was sleeping. I carried him upstairs.
Vonnie trusts only a few of us around her sister. Sometimes I’m the only one my boss lets near Lisa.
I opened the door to Lisa’s apartment. “Hey, Miss Kitty,” I called.
I didn’t see Miss Kitty anywhere, so I let Thaddeus out of the carrier and went back outside to get my things. I lugged the suitcases, the doll, the litter, and cat food up the steps and found myself out of breath. That was a workout.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if I could have the rest of the day off?” I said.
Thaddeus came from the bedrooms and rubbed against my legs. “Did you meet Miss Kitty yet?” I asked. “She’s here somewhere.”
The phone started ringing and then someone was knocking on the door. Did I dare answer either one?
“It’s me.” Vonnie called from outside. At least it was safe to open the door. “Do you need anything?” she asked once she was inside.
“Lunch. I’ve got a BLT from the Yorkie Cafe. Can I bum a cup of coffee off your staff?”
“You are my staff,” she reminded me.
“You mean no one else is working today?”
“They’re there. Welcome to your first day as hotel manager.”
“I can’t even manage these two cats.”
The phone had stopped ringing. That was a good thing.
“Give me a minute to look around and make sure I’ve got groceries and enough pet supplies.” I said.
Vonnie opened the refrigerator. “I had Jack buy you some groceries on his way north. He got cat food and there’s enough litter for now.”
“Jack’s here? He could be the one staying in this apartment.”
“He wanted a room in the main house.”
“Lucky him. He gets a choice.”
“Penny, we have serious problems. I need help, and I wouldn’t ask, if I could go someplace else.”
Of course. Secrets had to be kept. Jack, for instance, would be in disguise. He’s an ex-con and conditions of his parole keep him from coming to the Upper Peninsula at all. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t come. He visits often. But I realized staying in Lisa’s apartment would make him conspicuous. Someone would notice and he could end up in jail too. He would be better off at the farm with my hippy friends, but I knew he would want to be closer to his sisters, Vonnie and Lisa.
“Don’t worry,” I told Vonnie. “I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”
“Rent’s free,” she said. “Your salary is triple. Of course, you will also be working triple the hours. That means the historical society needs to find another clerk.”
“But I’m doing an oral history later today,” I said.
I needed some get-away time. I couldn’t think of a better place to hide than in the museum. After all it’s right there at Almasy House. I was not giving up my volunteer job with the historical society. I would manage somehow.
After she left, I checked out the apartment. Jack had brought a bag of potato chips and bottles of Coke. They would go great with my sandwich. But first I wanted to look around some more.
I’m a world class snoop after all. I can’t help myself.
I looked in Lisa Mynter’s closets and in her medicine chest. I might have to take clothes to the jail for her. The medicine chest was bare. She didn’t seem to be taking anything for her weirdness. I wasn’t sure what mental illness she suffered from, and I didn’t want to go over any of that with Vonnie .
I shouldn’t have to. I take care of the business; Vonnie takes care of Lisa. Wasn’t that our agreement?
I tried to call the Cheney place. The line was busy. I ate my lunch. Then I tried to call again. No answer.
There was always someone there to answer the phone. Then Lisa’s phone rang.
I decided to answer it. If it was a reporter or someone else I shouldn’t talk to, I could always hang up.
“Are you coming to work or not?” Vonnie asked. “I need you.”
“I’ve been trying to reach the farmhouse. Something might be wrong. I can’t get an answer.” I said.
“Turn on the T.V.,” she instructed me, “Channel 6.”
Lisa’s phone had a long cord, so I could reach across the room. I flipped on the television and saw the farm where I had been living. Sue was hiding behind a door. “No comment,” she said to a reporter before she slammed the door shut.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“That killer in Louisiana says he buried someone there on my land. There’s also the connection to Lisa’s case.”
“We can’t let them keep snooping out there,” I said. We had a nice cannabis patch behind the house.
“Do we have a choice? The cops have a search warrant. Reporters follow the cops.”
“What about my friends? They live out there.”
“Tell them to move if they don’t like it. Now come over to the big house. Things are just as crazy over here.”
I gulped down the last of my pop.
State Prison, Louisiana, 1970
Sheriff Miles Olson knew the procedure. He had been to the Louisiana State Prison before. He would be searched, photographed and then searched again. His keys and his badge had sharp edges, and could be used as weapons. They could not go inside.
He submitted to the searches. They were like a thousand searches he himself had conducted on prisoners. Only this time he was the one being searched. He didn’t mind it.
Heavy bars opened in front of him; doors clanged shut behind him. Miles wasn’t usually claustrophobic, but he felt hemmed in. It wasn’t enough to know he could walk out.
Finally he was seated in a room made of concrete and steel. The guard who had led him this far locked the door behind him. Miles waited. Time moved at a different pace in here.
He heard scraping noises. The door in front of him opened; another guard entered and then another guard. Behind them came the prisoner. He shuffled in followed by more guards. The prisoner’s legs and hands were restrained by chains that wound around his waist, his wrists and his feet. He sat down heavily, the chains clanging. A guard then handcuffed the prisoner to the table and secured both his legs to the chair.
The prisoner grinned at Miles; it was the kind of grin one would see on a Halloween display. It didn’t make it all the way up his eyes. Surely the prisoner hadn’t been drinking, but he seemed stoned; perhaps he was being drugged. Miles knew they drugged some convicts as their execution day got closer. The men waited until the guards left. Then they would talk.
“How you doin’ old buddy,” the prisoner said. “Still wearin’ a badge in that there hick town?”
Miles didn’t say anything. He stared instead at the prisoner’s forehead. He drummed his fingers on the table.
“You take care of what we talked about?” The prisoner seemed to be chewing something, perhaps gum. Did they give prisoners gum?
“I’m working on it.” Miles said.
“Work a little harder. It ain’t like I’ve got a lot of time left. I ain’t made all my confessions yet.”
Penny When I got to Almasy House the next morning, Jack waited for me in the foyer. He’s Vonnie and Lisa’s brother. We walked to Vonnie’s office, where she was talking to Paul Cantrell, Lisa’s attorney. Dancing Bear Cheney, a full blooded Ojibwa Indian, a licensed M.D. and the doctor on record for Lisa was there too. Most other people around here are too racist to be treated by an Indian, so Danni works mostly as a registered nurse and herbalist. I knew young Dr. Tracie would examine Lisa also, but he and Danni would most likely agree.
After Jack and I were seated, I said, “Go over it again; I want to know what’s happening.”
“What a surprise,” Vonnie said.
I gave her a look in return that said, don’t give me a rough time, and you need my help here.
Vonnie started telling us what she knew.
“Lisa was working with one of the new maids. We’ve been so busy; I had to hire some girls that I don’t know very well. Of course, I told them that Lisa has strange episodes, but I guess this maid was talking to some of the town’s people, and she was told that Lisa is more than a bit off. This maid also knew some things about…” Vonnie couldn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t have to.
“Lisa shouldn’t be working with strangers,” I said. “They scare her.”
“The girl seemed okay, and she had good references. Anyway they weren’t together long. I had them cleaning different rooms. But the girl is young and efficient; she finished her room before Lisa did and went in to help Lisa.”
“Lisa started talking about killing someone.”
“What?” I said.
“You know she has hallucinations about people getting hung.”
“That doesn’t mean she hangs people.” She wouldn’t know how to do that. Hanging is how a group of men kill someone. A little old lady like Lisa Mynter would have difficulty hanging a picture. Anyway the charge was drowning Vonnie’s five year old son, Louis. I knew how much Vonnie must be hurting as she relived the tragedy.
I still didn’t get the connection between Lisa and her usual crazy banter and the accidental death of a child almost forty years ago.
The old timer was waiting for me in the museum’s gift shop. I led him into Mary Mentor Smith’s outer office. We would do the interview there. Old timers come to the museum to give us oral histories. They talk about the schools they went to, the cars they drove, the friends they had. I get information about the town and how it used to be from these old timers.
“Too bad about that there Brianka girl,” he said.
“She’s got a good lawyer, and Miles sure doesn’t have a case.”
“That girl is peculiar. Don’t believe she’s a killer though.”
“Do you know Lisa?” I asked.
“Not really. Heard lots about her though.”
“Did you know her dad?” I asked. “He worked in the Tilden Mine until 1925. That’s the year he disappeared.”
He nodded. “Knew him. He was a foreigner. Didn’t speak English the best, but he was educated. We all knew that. Something bad happened to him in the old country and he came here.”
“He was Jewish,” I said.
“That’s what they said.”
“Lots of people back then didn’t like the Jews, even here in this country. Do you have any idea what happened to him?”
“Some people say he was lynched.”
“I ain’t got any idea what happened to him.” The old timer repeated.
“The Klan had something to do with it.” I said.
He nodded. “More ‘an likely.”
In this part of the story Penny comes across as more reliable. We know Vonnie, a successful business woman depends on her. Yet Penny has hippy friends who smoke marijuana, and the reader is reminded of her dishonest past? What is your take on Penny? Is she worthy of trust?
In this part of the story we meet some less likable characters including a sheriff with dark secrets, a serial killer who is about to be executed and Jack, ex con who violates his parole by coming to the Upper Michigan. Are any of these characters in any way sympathetic? Which characters will be the greatest threat to Penny and which ones might prove allies?
The 20th century was our most violent century. Some groups, like immigrants and the mentally ill were targeted with hatred and prejudice. Already in this story, a mentally ill woman has been arrested for a crime she did not commit, and we have learned her Jewish father disappeared, perhaps he was even murdered. What other groups of people faced similar prejudice and what are some of the ways they deal with the prejudices aimed against them?