1970 Almasy House
Audrey and I usually ate our lunch at eleven. She had a ham sandwich and an apple. I traded her my banana for her Twinkie and a bag of pretzels. I had a lettuce salad dressed up with red onion, tomatoes, cucumber and a vinaigrette dressing.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “If Vonnie’s son’s death was ruled an accident thirty some years ago, why change it to homicide now.”
“Because Miles wants to cause trouble. The Brianka’s aren’t well-liked in this town.”
“Vonnie’s a successful business woman. She’s the best.”
“But she was expecting a baby before she had a husband. No one believes little Louis was old Ezekiel’s son.”
“It’s nobody’s business.”
“Jack was in prison, and Lisa’s crazy. People still see the Briankas as different.”
“Aren’t we all?” she said. “I mean how do they define different?”
I bit into a pretzel. This town has a twisted history, I thought.
Lisa: The Jail
Lisa’s second night in jail. Again the lights went off just when she needed them most. She was sure the hanged man from last night - most likely a stuffed scarecrow - had been planted. And the seaweed. Where had that come from? Her jailers were practical jokers. The were bullies. But that didn’t lesson her fear.
She took deep breaths, closed her eyes. tried not to imagine herself in a dark place.
She fell asleep. She awoke to water sounds. It sounded like someone was running water. Running water wasn’t scary. But she thought of the creek and little Louis’ last moments. How terrified he must have been.
A falsetto voice cried out, “Auntie. Auntie. Help me. Where are you, Auntie?”
Lisa put her hands over her ears. Someone was trying to scare her. Then came the sound of wet footsteps.
In the hall way Miles wanted to giggle. He sloshed back to his office, took off the wet boots and hid them in the closet.
When Miles got back from patrol he went to his dad’s office and poured himself a cup of coffee. “We gotta check on the brother. See if he had anything to do with this. Mean thing to lock your sister in a John and then take off.”
“Mean thing for anyone to do,” his dad told him. “But Jack Brianka doesn’t come to the Upper Peninsula. Part of his sentencing and his pardon.”
“Don’t mean he don’t come. If I catch him…”
“You will do nothing but report back to me. Leave Jack Brianka alone. That family’s had enough heartbreak.”
“I tell you, he’s the one that done it.”
“Well, you’re wrong. I checked and Jack’s got a good alibi.”
“Sleeping with Rinaldi’s daughter.” Miles was so upset he spilled some of his coffee. “What that pretty one, rich and a senator’s wife, sees in that tramp, I’ ll never know. Want me to double check that so-called alibi.”
“I want you to mind your own business. I told you Jack wasn’t here, and he didn’t do this one.”
“Maybe that crazy gal is lying. She goes in there and claws at the boards like a wild animal and…”
“Go over to the Watson residence. They claim someone’s been stealing their chickens.”
“Soon as you tell me about this great alibi Johnny Brianka has.”
Leo put his pen down and thought had for a minute. “You know Ben Fuller?”
“Captain. State Police. Ole Jack got himself in more trouble. I shoulda known it.”
“Actually Jack is helping the state guys. You know there’s a killer operating in the state. We got missing girls. Some bodies have shown up. Showin’ up all the time. But we think there are more”
“Jack always was top of my list of suspects.”
“Well he is not on Fuller’s list of suspects. Fuller thinks it’s one of his guys.”
Miles spilled more of his coffee. “No way,” he said. They couldn’t be on Sonny’s trail, and if they were, Sonny was bound to implicate him.
Leo said, “Jack knows lots of people, cops and mobsters and ex cons. Fuller thought he could help. He’s been talking to Jack. That’s where Jack was when…”
“Big help that jailbird will be.” Miles set his cup down and hurried out. He had to warn Sonny. If the cops had a theory about a cop being the killer, then he and Sonny could be in trouble.
What a joke. Jack Brianka helping the state cops.
That night Jack stayed at the Cheney farm.
He brought whiskey with him and while Vonnie rested, he poured himself a drink and took out extra glasses for Dancing Bear and Dennis. “Someone killed that little boy,” he said.
Mary and Elsie were busy in Emil’s kitchen making pies. They had just come home from Milwaukee where they sold more of the jewelry and coins Emil had found. The first thing they had done when they got home was go shopping for flour and sugar and baking supplies. Each sister kept a large garden in her backyard and soon they would be canning for the winter. They also had pies to make.
They had heard about the latest tragedy at the store.
Back home in their pa’s kitchen, the sisters blinked tears from their eyes. “That poor little boy,” Mary said as she wiped her face with her apron.
“We have to do something for that Cheney girl. Making pies just won’t be enough.”
“There has to be something. She’s a Brianka. you know.”
Elsie nodded. “The brother can’t come north. He’s had some trouble with the law, and they don’t want him in the Upper Peninsula.”
“And the sister is odd. Dylan said talking to her was like talking to a child.”
“But Yvonne - I think that is her name…”
“Yes, that’s the older sister. The one who just lost that baby. Yvonne. They call her Vonnie.”
“She’s a maid for the Rinaldis. In fact, she seems to be Lucinda Rinaldi Davies’ best friend. Lucinda will help her. The Rinaldi’s are good people. If I needed a job, I’d want to work for them.”
“Pa worked for them. He got a nice retirement bonus.”
“Half the town works in Rinaldi’s mines.”
“I wonder…” Elsie said.
“What are you scheming?” Mary asked.
“Dylan needs a wife, and Vonnie’s such a sweet girl.”
“But she had a kid out of wedlock. People don’t forget things like that.” Mary wasn’t going to let her brother get sucked into another bad marriage.
“Who cares what people think?”
“Dylan needs a special wife; he’s a special guy. If he wasn’t my brother, and I wasn’t already married, I’d marry Dylan.” There was silence for awhile, and then Mary added, “Vonnie has an ex-con brother and a crazy sister. We can’t let Dylan get involved with that.”
“But we have to help her. That poor dear just lost her husband who was more like a father to her and now. And now she’s lost her baby. It’s more than anyone can bear.…”
The sisters sat in silence for awhile. Each wondering what she could do to help. Wondering what the Mynter family could do to help.
The problem of finding Dylan a good wife was set aside for now.
Lisa sat with Dr. Tracie and Vonnie. He talked about Newberry, the State Mental Hospital. “It has a great staff. She’ll get the best possible care.”
“We grew up in an orphanage.” Vonnie began. She knew how much Lisa had hated the orphanage, and to institutionalize her again seemed cruel. “I can’t send her back to a place like that.”
“This will be different,” Tracie assured her.
“Her problems can be addressed by professionals who know how to deal with the types of problems that Lisa has.”
“But she was doing so well on the farm.” Even as she said it, Vonnie realized Lisa really had not been doing that well on the farm. And now after the ordeal of losing Little Louis, Vonnie just didn’t know what to do.
She hurt so much herself after losing her baby and her husband, she doubted her ability to cope with Lisa anymore, and Jack was living downstate now.
Vonnie wanted to throw her hands in the air and scream. Instead she turned to Lisa. “What do you want to do?”
Lisa didn’t answer.
After awhile Dr. Tracie said, “Lisa, no one will hurt you at Newberry. Some of the people there will have problems similar to yours. You can make friends.” After a minute, Lisa nodded. She turned to Vonnie. “I’ll go.”
Danni drove the sisters to the gates of Newberry, toured the mental hospital with them and then waited at the gate while the sisters said good bye.
When Vonnie came back to the car, Danni drove her home.
“I understand you’re leaving us too,” Vonnie said.
“I’m going to Michigan State. I think I’ll become a nurse.”
“You know as much as any doctor.”
“No one wants an Indian doctor.”
“I’m surprised you don’t stay and marry Dennis,” Vonnie said. “He has quite a crush on you.”
Danni laughed. She liked Dennis as much as Dennis liked her.
Lisa knew Vonnie had to leave her. The nurse showed her the kitchen, dining area and recreational areas that visitors like Vonnie and Danni were not shown. “This is the women’s wing,” the nurse explained.
The buildings were so large, Lisa knew she would get lost. But there were lots of people around. Lisa didn’t know how to talk to new people. But these people weren’t as rich or as pretty as Lucinda and or as sophisticated as Mr. Rinaldi. They were more like people she could relate to - maybe.
“Do you have any questions?” the nurse asked.
“Do you have a library? I like to read.”
“Tell us what books you might be interested in, and someone can go to the public library. We have a few residents who are readers. In fact, she led Lisa to a small sitting room where stacks of books stood. “Will this get you started?”
“Yes, ma-am.” Lisa had an Agatha Christie novel in her suitcase and Jack had promised to send her a John Bynes novel. Still she sat down and selected two books she thought she might like. “May I borrow these?”
She settled down in an over stuffed chair in the recreation area. Some of the other woman moved around her. They didn’t seem to know how to approach the newcomer. Lisa’s face was buried in a book. Didn’t that mean she didn’t want to be disturbed?
The other patients whispered. Where did this new girl come from? Someone said she drowned her nephew.
Lisa was having a tough time getting into the book; she closed her eyes and saw the inside of the outhouse all dark and cold. She heard men’s voices and the little boy’s giggles that turned to screams. She remembered her own screams. The dark scared her. It always scared her. But she had been afraid for little Louis too. And then she remembered another dark place. The yard of the house she used to live in. Rough men dragging her dad up a ladder and then… and then…
“Don’t hurt him.” She must have said it out loud.
“It ain’t all that bad,” someone said. Lisa opened her eyes and saw a thin girl in a shapeless housedress. “We get fed. No matter how bad things get outside, we always get three square meals a day.” the girl giggled. “Did you ever see a square meal?”
“No,” Lisa admitted.
“We all have jobs here. You can make crafts to sell in the gift shop, or you can work in the kitchen or the laundry. Ain’t many of us get out of working. What you going to do?”
“I guess I’ll go to the laundry tomorrow,” Lisa said.
“Icky. I’d rather clean the toilets or dig ditches.” The woman sat down across from Lisa.
Other women moved about the room. They were restless.
“So what do we do besides work?” Lisa asked.
“You talk to doctors. Special doctors who want to know what happens inside your mind.”
“Okay,” Lisa nodded. She didn’t know if she wanted to talk to anyone, not about the things she saw sometimes in her head. The ladder. The rope. The dark stinky outhouse.
“Don’t let her see,” Pa said.
Little Louis screamed.
Lisa closed her eyes to shut out the memories.
Someone asked. “Why did you drown your nephew?”
“Line up,” the voice came from a heavy set woman who marched into the room like a storm trooper. Lisa had not seen her before.
“Night nurse.” said her companion. “Time for our pills.”
The other women lined up, and then one by one they were called forward. Small round cups held individual medicines for each patient. Lisa obediently stepped forward when her name was called. The nurse handed her the cup. “Swallow,’ she commanded.
Lisa wanted to gag. There were five pills in her cup and she had never swallowed that many pills all at one time before.
Then the nurse handed her a small cup of water. “Drink.”
“Good girl. Now open your mouth, so I can make sure you swallowed all the pills.”
What were those pills supposed to do? Lisa wanted to read for another hour. Instead she and the others were ordered into bed. The women all obeyed.
Lisa did get a room to herself. But she couldn’t control the lights. The lights went off and the room was plunged in total darkness. Lisa tried to cope with her fear. Think about something else, she told herself.
She remembered the happy little boy with chubby cheeks.
She heard the plop of the board against the outhouse door. The darkness, the voices, and the hours of waiting. Louis. Little Louis. “Let me out. Let me out.”
She had not seen the body after Dennis pulled it from the creek. Poor little Louis. She should have found a way to escape. She should have found a way to save him. Her finger tips were still red and sore from clawing at the door.
She began sobbing. She closed her eyes tight. More noises from memory came to her imagination. This time the memory came from further back. A ladder was pushed aside. It fell over with a sudden sound. Her father with the rope twisted around his head. She could not control her sobs, and then she could not control her screams.
The lights came back on.
I visit Louis Cheney’s grave sometimes. I always felt sad for him. I have never even seen him. He died many years before I was born. I know Vonnie has pictures, but she doesn’t have them in her office or at the farm. She must keep them in her room at Almasy house.
On Memorial Day and on his birth and death days, I put flowers on his grave.
I never bought the theory that his death was an accidental drowning.
Louis was in his playpen. He couldn’t get out without help. Lisa was locked in the outhouse. Whoever locked her up, picked the baby up and carried him to the stream.
I had a good idea who that someone might be.
That morning with Lisa still in jail, I put some wild flowers on the grave. When I looked up Leo was at the churchyard gate watching me.
I walked toward him.”What’s up?” I asked.
“We got some reports of vandalism here in the cemetery. Some tombstones knocked over.”
“You going to arrest me?” I asked. “I ain’t a cop anymore.”
Why did he keep reminding me of that? Why was he watching me when I went to the cemetery?
Danni and Dr. Tracie helped Lucinda deliver deliver a healthy baby girl.
Enrico waited in the parlor.
Finally Vonnie brought the baby out to meet her grandfather.
“Lucinda says her name is Starr ”
The grandfather nodded. Tears filled his eyes as he took hold of the little bundle.
“Should I help you write the announcement?” Vonnie asked.
Enrico’s smile disappeared. “Actually the senator already announced the birth of his daughter, Carol Ann. We won’t announce the birth of a second baby. There’ll be too many questions.”
When Lucinda and her dad came home from church, Vonnie was organizing the Christmas decorations. Lucinda found her weeping.
“This must be hard for you.” Lucinda said throwing her arms around her maid.
“I lost them both,” Vonnie sobbed. “First Ezekiel and then Little Louis. and Lisa’s gone now too. I couldn’t wait for Christmas. I had all these gifts planned for Little Louis, and I wanted…”
Lucinda just let her friend sob for awhile. “We can get somebody else to help you with the cleaning,” she decided. “I can decorate and take care of Starr.”
“No. I want to do it. I always loved Christmas. I still imagine Little Louis here sometimes.”
“I know you do, and that’s okay.”
Vonnie smiled thinly through her tears. “ I’ll bet his spirit visits us often. Just the other day I couldn’t find my thimble, and I thought his little ghost must have taken it.” She paused. “I don’t want to be crazy like Lisa.”
Lucinda shook her gently. “Lisa, is not crazy. She’s just sensitive, and think of all she’s been through. What you’ve all been through. Losing your parents that way. And now…” Lucinda did not finish her sentence. After awhile she said, “Let’s go downstairs and have a cup of tea.”
Vonnie turned to the sleeping baby beside her.
“Starr will be fine. Don’t worry. We can leave her.”
Vonnie still paused. She couldn’t bear another loss, and this baby was so small and defenseless just like her little one had been.
Lucinda gently urged Vonnie toward the stairs. “And we’re going to get you help. Taking care of the baby and the house is too much for one or even two women.”
“I can do it,” Vonnie said as they made their way down the steps.
“You do. But it’s too much, and you need more rest.”
“The work gets my mind off things. And I don’t mind taking care of Starr. She’s a good baby.”
Lucinda insisted that Vonnie sit while she made the the tea. Vonnie sat in the parlor where Lucnda had directed her. “Soon Enrico joined her, “How are you doing?” he asked. “Is your sister doing okay?”
“She’s settling in, but..”
“They increased the drugs she’s on. I worry about that.”
“She’s got good doctors. She’ll be fine,” he assured her.
Lucinda returned with a silver tea pot and white china cups and delicate saucers. They sat in silence for a minute. Vonnie’s finger traced the pattern of the tiny flowers on the cups. She had always liked this design.
Vonnie should have taken the day off, but after they had their tea, she vacuumed instead . Lucinda settled in the parlor with an Agatha Christie novel. In the middle of the afternoon, Vonnie grabbed some sewing she intended to work on.
“Let’s listen to the radio,” Enrico suggested. “See what Roosevelt is up this week.” He walked over and turned on the dial.
Instead of the president, a group of singers sang, “JELL-O.” And then, “We interrupt this program to bring an important announcement. The Japanese this morning attacked Pearl Harbor by air.”
“Pearl Harbor,” Vonnie was at first confused. “Is that in Hawaii? Don’t we have bases there and our fleet?”
“We do,” Lucinda said. She remembered Brad talking about the ships stationed there.
“It means we’re at war,” Enrico said.
Dylan’s two older brothers Joe and Abe joined the Army Engineers.
Louis had graduated college, but decided to become a doctor. He was ready for medical school when the war started. His pre-med training had not been extensive, but it was enough to get him a commission as a medic. Eddie hadn’t enough training in anything, but the Army Air Corps looked good. He went to St. Louis and started taking flying lessons from another Upper Peninsula native, Mario Fontana. Ken and Bill were too young to serve.
“Save some Japs for us,” they yelled to Eddie as he boarded the train that would take him to St. Louis.
Dylan alone had not signed up for the service, but he knew he would be drafted. He talked to Emil. “I don’t think I can kill anyone, Pa.”
“I think you gotta belong to a certain religion to get a deferment. It’s called being a conscientious objector.”
“I guess that’s what I am. I don’t know about joining no religion. I just don’t want to shoot anyone.” Dylan almost cried at the thought.
“I’ll talk to Mr. Rinaldi . Maybe he can get you off. You‘re needed at the mine. We need a new foreman, and I already suggested you to Mr. Rinaldi.”
Things got busier in the mines with the war effort. Dylan found himself working double shifts. Old timers, came back to the mines. The men told Dylan he reminded them of sons or even grand sons who were away fighting.
Dylan didn’t see Elaine anymore. He had heard that she had wanted a job working for the Rinaldis, but Lucinda had hired someone else. Too bad for Elaine. Dylan suspected she wanted to catch a rich husband and Enrico Rinaldi probably looked promising. Dylan had met the full time Rinaldi maid, Vonnie Brianka Cheney several times and he liked her. His sisters liked her too, but worried about him getting involved with the wrong woman. Mrs. Cheney had what Mary called a checkered past with a ex convict brother, a crazy sister and a baby conceived out of wedlock.
Dylan’s sisters needn’t have worried. He wasn’t ready for another marriage and suspected Vonnie wasn’t ready yet either.
Dylan still loved Elaine. She was beautiful, and he prayed someday Elaine would see him for his great qualities and come back to him.
They would live happily on his salary, and his sisters would eventually see her inner goodness and come to love her as he did. It was a daydream. But it was all he had. He would always love Elaine.
Sometimes he thought about that other Brianka girl; the one who had lived out on the farm for awhile. She was in Newberry now. It was too bad because he thought she was an intelligent and pretty girl. But he knew she had suffered greatly. She and her siblings had been orphaned young. Dylan had lost his own mother when he was still in his teens, and it had hurt deeply though he had been almost an adult then. He had heard Lisa was just five years old when she lost her parents.
And then to lose that little boy like that. From what he had heard she had taken good care of Louis. He remembered how good she had been with the little boy when he helped her get the child ready for Ezekiel’s funeral. How awful. He decided to write to her in Newberry.