“I’m sorry,” she whispered, as she struggled to close the lid of the wooden trunk. A middle-aged woman’s face stared up at her. “It won’t be forever … I’ll let you out again,” she promised.
While fighting against the old hinges, Jane Wheel had stopped to admire the milk paint that softened the look of the wood, made the trunk look like whatever it held would be old and precious. As she paused, the relatives being packed away shifted their weight and resisted the lockdown of the heavy wooden lid.
“Aunt Bessie, I am so sorry,” Jane repeated as she smothered Bessie with a small autograph quilt made from men’s suiting fabrics. The houndstooths and tweeds and scratchy woolens might not feel soft to the touch, but they would protect the family members jammed into the wooden box from scratches and breakage. At least Jane hoped the framed photos would be well protected. Aunt Bessie, Uncle Titus, the cousins who worked at the Iowa State Hospital, the 1912 firefighters from Des Moines, the twelve grown men riding on a child-sized train ride somewhere in a leafy park. None of these photos were of people blood-related to Jane Wheel. Aunt Bessie and Uncle Titus were christened on the days Jane gathered them from far-flung rummage sales and flea markets, rescued them from the oblivion of thrift stores and estate sales.
Aren’t we enough for you? Jane’s ex-husband Charley, would ask. Of course, she would answer, beaming at her husband and son, Nick, as she unpacked photo albums and yearbooks and unknown ancestor after unknown ancestor when she returned from Saturday sales. These people needed rescuing, she explained to Charley.
“If I don’t save them, who will?” Jane asked.
And now, as she packed away the faux family, she could point out to Charley, who wouldn’t hear her since he now lived most of the year far from Evanston, Illinois, in Honduras, that the adopted relatives would come in handy to keep her company these days. Nick had been a wonderful companion and it was with great mixed feelings that she celebrated his acceptance at a math and science academy for high school. It was Nick’s dream school—one that would actually sanction time with his father at the dig site if something exciting turned up during the school year. Nick would board at a school with other students like him, brainy and funny and motivated, all on a full scholarship. He had left two weeks ago and Jane still teared up when she thought about his whispered good-bye.
“A text every night, Mom, if there isn’t time for an e-mail, okay? And don’t worry about the house or packing up. I’ll help you do it all at Thanksgiving—Will’s mom said nothing happens in real estate this time of year.”
Nick had hugged her ferociously and for just a second, Jane thought about asking him to give up Lakewood Academy and stick to boring old high school at boring old home with boring old her. But as ferocious as his hug had been, she could see the absolute joy and excitement in his eyes. He was headed to the place he was meant to be.
And Jane? Where was she headed?
* * *
“Trouble. You are headed straight for trouble,” said Nellie, talking out of the side of her mouth as she always did when she thought Don might hear and contradict her. Not that Nellie ever cared who contradicted her.
“I’m headed toward fiscal responsibility,” said Jane. She had caller ID; she had seen that it was Nellie calling. Jane had chosen to answer the phone and had no one but herself to blame.
“You’re a single woman now and your son is off to boarding school. If you sell your house, you’ll be homeless. Hell’s bell’s, Jane, isn’t your life pathetic enough?”
“Thanks, Mom, got to go. Another call—probably someone from the soup kitchen wanting to know if they can deliver my meals or if I’ll be shuffling down to the church basement on my own.”
Jane pushed END and her mother’s voice was gone. How she longed for a sturdy Bakelite telephone receiver that she could slam down into an even heavier Bakelite base. Hanging up on someone used to mean something, used to have a kind of sound and fury to it. Ending a conversation with a silent click had no panache and gave Jane little satisfaction. In fact, it was such a quiet ending to the phone call that Jane had no doubt her mother was still talking on the other end, railing about Jane’s decision to sell the house and find a smaller place to live. She would be enumerating all the reasons it was too soon to make a change—the reverse of all the reasons she had enumerated twenty years before when she told Jane and Charley they should not commit to buying the house in the first place.
Buy it they did—for a good price that felt impossible to manage at the time. But the house, the beloved old four-bedroom with charming stone fireplace and ancient hot-water heater and rattling furnace had appreciated—the property’s value had risen up and up to a figure too good to be true. That peak was eight years ago and the figure was indeed too good to be true—in fact, it wasn’t true at all. Poof—like a puff of smoke from the working-but-always-problematic stone fireplace, the imaginary profit had vanished and their beloved albeit drafty old house had become one more sad listing on the overcrowded housing market.
“Pack this junk up. Every bit of it,” said Melinda, Nick’s friend’s mom, the realtor who had come over to list the house. “I got phone numbers of people you can hire to come in and have a sale.”
Jane stared at her. Melinda was a sturdy attractive woman whose blazer pulled a little tight in the shoulders, but whose pricey blond highlights and good gold jewelry supported her claim to being a top producer at her realty firm, even in this depressed market.
She was probably a swimmer, thought Jane, unaware that she was staring at Melinda’s shoulders.
“What? What’s back there?” asked Melinda, turning to look behind her shoulder where she thought Jane was staring. “Oh yeah, you’re going to have to clean up all that luggage. What’s the deal? Packing for a vacation?”
Jane looked at the vintage suitcases stacked behind Melinda’s back. Two drunken pillars on either side of the fireplace, the cases were turned this way and that, brown and red, a few that were striped or plaid and displaying the scars of travel and the tattoos of stickered destinations. They made for interesting storage of old tax information, auction catalogs that Jane used both for reference and her own continuing education as a picker. A brown leather bag with a Bakelite handle contained twenty-five high school yearbooks from the thirties. Jane figured someone who loved cool graphics and vintage photos would buy them in a heartbeat—but that would involve taking them out of the case and actually pricing them for sale.
Melinda had given her a week to clear out the main rooms, offering over and over to help her find a service to do a clean-out.
Last night she phoned Jane to tell her she wanted to bring by a potential buyer in two days.
“I’ve worked with hoarders before,” said Melinda. “I can find you someone to help. Someone who runs estate sales. They know how to get rid of the crap.”
No they don’t. They just bring it all to their homes, thought Jane.
“What do you say?” said Melinda.
“The house will be ready for showing on Wednesday,” said Jane.
“If you promise…”
“Afternoon. Wednesday afternoon, okay?” Jane could hear Melinda chewing something. She was eating while on the phone. Okay, so maybe Jane looked like a hoarder, but she wasn’t a phone-eater.
“I’ll call you with the time. Get it cleaned out, Jane. If you want to sell this place, clear the decks!”
So, in her best aye, aye captain mode, Jane Wheel, Picker and Private Investigator, was spending this warm September evening clearing the decks. She was packing the smalls: the vintage glass and pottery flower frogs that dotted shelves and served as punctuation marks between rows of books in the cases; the McCoy flowerpots that held fistfuls of number-two pencils as well as old plastic advertising pens and mechanical pencils; the small copper vessels in which she had planted bouquets of old pairs of scissors; the Depression glass and mason jars, which bloomed with bunches of wooden and Bakelite knitting needles; the glass apothecary jars that held swizzle sticks and wooden spools of thread and several pounds of old silver and iron and brass keys. A basket of doorknobs stood in the corner and an antique fishbowl sat on the trunk used as a coffee table filled not with koi and guppies, but rather board-game tokens, dice, and orphaned Scrabble letters.
“Am I a hoarder?” Jane asked herself out loud.
Jane sat down on the trunk that now held all those made-up old relatives and gave her living room a long hard look. Stacked cardboard boxes, taped and labeled with a black Sharpie, replaced the vintage luggage stacks. Now packing cases held old flowered tablecloths, napkins adorned with initials not even close to Jane Wheel’s, and tatted doilies, antimacassars and crocheted tea cozies.
One lone black garbage bag sat in the middle of the room. Jane had put it there for any items she came across that she no longer wanted. Movers were coming in the morning to pack up all the boxes and nonessential furniture and driving it to a storage locker in Kankakee—in a facility that Jane’s friend, Tim, used.
“It’s dry and clean and I got you space on the first floor next to two of mine,” said Tim.”You can drive right up to it, open the garage door, and visit your stuff anytime you want. From seven AM to ten PM. Except on Sundays when it closes at six,” he added.
Jane peered into the garbage bag. One lone flour sack pot holder lay at the bottom of the bag. Shaped like a pear and embroidered with a cheerful smile and long curly eyelashes that gave this 1940s handmade kitchen collectible a feminine, flirty air, it was lightly padded, Jane guessed, with a piece of old recycled wool sandwiched between the soft cotton fabric.
“How did you fall into that throwaway bag?” Jane asked the pot holder.
It was the second question she had asked herself—or an inanimate object—out loud.
Quickly she stuffed the cloth pear into a box where the tape was not totally sealed and snatched up the garbage bag. There were some old shirts and pants, Charley’s clothes he had left behind that he asked her to donate and get rid of. Okay, she could do that. After all, answering her first question, it wasn’t like she was a hoarder.
* * *
By the time the Wednesday showing of her Evanston home arrived, Jane had watched movers fill a large truck with trunks, luggage, and box after box of stuff that they drove off to Kankakee. Jane had already decided to let Tim receive the stuff on the other end while she stayed behind to wrap up some business at the bank and have lunch with her partner in the PI part of her PPI professional life, Detective Oh. Jane’s plan, after lunch, was to head home and pick up her dog, Rita, and head down to Kankakee. There she would be reunited with her boxes and cartons and bags and suitcases. And, of course, her parents, Don and Nellie. Jane would remain there through the weekend since the open house was scheduled for all day Sunday.
Melinda would shepherd the lookers, the gawkers, the curious neighbors, and one or two potential buyers who would descend upon her now sparsely furnished space. Jane could hardly believe anyone would find the house appealing without its character-building clutter, its rich textural personality, but according to Melinda, Jane had done a spectacular job of decluttering.
“A for effort,” she had announced when she made a quick inspection early on Wednesday morning. “Don’t forget to take all the family photos out of the den.”
Jane had showered and changed into a clean pair of jeans and a soft navy V-neck sweater. She grabbed her giant leather tote bag—what she referred to as her “just-in-case,” which held everything she might need … just in case—and prepared to leave to meet Oh, when she remembered that she hadn’t removed the family photos. Not wanting her grade to drop down to a B, she dashed into the now almost empty room.
When Charley left, his den became a resting place for old library items—book carts and card files—all of which Jane snapped up when a suburban branch moved its location. Jane thought she might find a good use for the comfortable trappings of a library, all worn and wooden, and they had given the room a cozy, if cluttered ambiance. Now that the den was emptied of all but a leather chair, ottoman, and lamp, strategically placed on a lovely old semiworn Persian carpet, Jane found herself a little breathless at how peaceful it looked. What did it remind her of? Oh, yes. A den.
She took all the photos off the built-in bookcases that flanked the fireplace. With only a few books remaining on the shelves, old leather-bound sets of Dickens and Alcott, books that felt as warm and soft to the touch as a pair of ladies’ kidskin gloves, and the brass lamp next to the chair turned down low, the room gave off such an appealing glow that it was all Jane could do to resist curling up in the old leather chair with one of the books. She steeled herself against the house love rising up in her and grabbed the photos, stuffing them into her “just-in-case.”
Whistling for Rita and giving her big dog a decent head rub before sentencing her to a few hours alone in the backyard, Jane threw herself into her car and pulled it around to the front. She sat parked in front of the house for a long look. Each red brick stair that led up to the oak front door held a terra-cotta pot filled with rust-colored mums. The window boxes were still filled, but the greenery was dying, spent from a summer of blooming. The stucco was in good shape and the stained timbers that framed the house, giving the illusion that the all-American four-square had English Tudor roots, were solid. It had been a good house and although waves of sentiment, feeling vaguely like the flu, washed over Jane as the years of Nick growing up, learning to ride a bike on the front side-walk, kicking a soccer ball into a net Charley had set up alongside the house, dashing out the front door to trick-or-treat dressed as a dinosaur or a gila monster flashed by in a slide show, making it hard to swallow for a moment, Jane wasn’t really sorry about selling the house. It was the right thing to do. It was time for a new family to plant flowers and to play catch in the yard. Charley had moved on and Nick was firmly launched.
Time for Jane to move on, too.
* * *
Jane walked into the Deadline Café at three minutes past noon, almost exactly on time, but, of course, Detective Bruce Oh was already sitting at a table by the window, He rose slightly as Jane approached and she smiled at him, wondering if younger men were learning to do that, to stand when a woman came in the room or, as in this case, approached the table. Why would they? Who would teach them? She felt a little panicky that she had never mentioned it to Nick, that maybe he should stand when a woman enters the room, then wondered if women today wanted men to stand. Would everyone have been better off if no one stood for everyone or everyone stood for everyone?
“… and so I ordered the tea. I hope you don’t mind,” said Oh.
Oh looked at Jane, and realized that she had been carrying on one of her conversations with herself when she arrived at the table.
“I ordered a pot of Earl Grey, Mrs. Wheel,” said Oh. “Would you prefer coffee?”
“Tea’s fine,” said Jane, glancing at a menu, but fully aware that she would have a veggie club sandwich, which is what she always ordered at the café.
Tossing the menu aside, Jane looked her partner in the eye.
“We’ve known each other for a few years now,” she said, stirring a packet of sugar into her tea. She always drank her coffee black, but loved to load up her tea with sugar or honey and as much lemon as a waitress offered. “And I think we…” Jane hesitated, hoping Oh would read her mind as he frequently did and bail her out by finishing her sentence.
Oh, however, never finished her sentences or anyone’s, even if he could read minds. “Listening, Mrs. Wheel, is a lost art. People will always tell you more and tell you precisely, if they are allowed to tell you themselves.”
Jane took another sip of her tea, admiring the mismatched vintage cup and saucer that the café used.
“We’ve been through a lot together, and I think you and I, we should…”
“Hey, Jane, want the club?” asked Lissa from behind the counter.
Jane looked at Detective Oh, who nodded.
“Two,” said Jane, holding up two fingers.
She had thought about this conversation for several days. Since she would be going to Kankakee and staying over the weekend she knew she wanted to say it now, before she left town, and get the hard words behind her.
“We both know we have a special rapport and I…” said Jane.
“Extra pickles?” yelled Lissa.
Jane nodded, but then saw that Lissa was, as usual, doing four things at once and not looking in Jane’s direction. “Yes, pickles,” said Jane.
“Perhaps,” said Oh.
“Yes?” said Jane. He was going to bail her out after all.
“You should just say it, Mrs. Wheel. Perhaps we are of one mind.”
“We usually are, don’t you think? And that’s why I think, we should begin…”
Lissa set the plates down in front of them. Their sandwiches were perfect, giant slabs of whole wheat bread, with avocado, cheese, tomatoes, sprouts and cucumbers, and smoked tempeh. Fakin Bacon, one of Jane’s favorite food groups. Once she took a bite, the moment would be lost forever, since beginning a sandwich like this was a commitment. One bite and all serious conversation would be lost to shredding and swallowing. That was true for Jane, anyway. Oh was deconstructing his sandwich and, using a knife and fork, managing to consume the components with his usual grace.
“It’s nothing,” said Jane. She shook her head. There would be other opportunities to have this discussion. In fact, what she had been about to say wasn’t even important. Jane was going to simply suggest that they call each other by their first names. A simple request, perfectly appropriate for their friendship, their business partnership. Why did she find it so difficult to simply say, Please call me Jane? As she looked at Detective Oh, his knife and fork held aloft over his plate, his dark eyes staring frankly into her own, she smiled. Maybe she couldn’t bring herself to say it because she liked the way he called her Mrs. Wheel.
Looking down at her plate piled high with her most favorite lunch in the world, she realized she had completely forgotten to eat breakfast. She picked up her sandwich and took an enormous bite.
* * *
Jane was on her way to Kankakee one half hour before the showing of her house was to begin. Driving through Chicago in the early afternoon was painless. Light traffic, a clear day, and although Jane couldn’t quite see forever, she could see the Chicago skyline as perfectly carved into the blue sky as one could hope. Curving and swerving into, and then around the city, taking an almost straight line south to Kankakee, Jane felt that she had driven the I94 to I57 route so often, her car could autopilot her to Kankakee.
This was an oddly carefree trip. Jane wasn’t rushing to put out any fire set by Nellie, she wasn’t flying down to fix any of Tim’s problems, she wasn’t being lured into a fake murder mystery that all too often turned real when she hit Kankakee County. Nope. This was just a girl and her dog heading down to visit her hometown on a clear September day. This would be the perfect visit. She had left her house in order, the realtor would host the open houses, and Jane wouldn’t be there to mess up anything between today’s showing and the weekend open house. Her packed treasures had already arrived in Kankakee, several hours ahead of her. Tim would supervise the unloading into the storage locker. Her son Nick had her on speed dial—an archaic expression if ever there was one, thought Jane. What was today’s smart phone equivalent? Detective Oh could take care of any little thing that came up at their office. Over the summer, the initial gloom and doom of Charley’s departure had lifted, Jane’s adjustment to this new chapter in her life was complete, and by golly, life was, or at least could be—no, would be—good. Jane turned on the radio, hoping some oldie would come on so she could sing along and make this little moment complete.
“Uh-oh,” said Jane out loud when “Love the One You’re With” came on.
Singing along, Jane started planning. There was an auction scheduled for the weekend. It was taking place at a farm just west of Kankakee and it was a complete household. The farm equipment would be sold out in the barns and the house would be turned inside out, its contents displayed under tents out in the yard. Tim had been invited in early to look at a few of the antiques and he had advised sending two of the pieces out to special sales for the best prices.
“But there’s plenty for us, Janie. How long since you’ve been at a country auction?”
Too long, thought Jane.
Even Nellie had seemed welcoming when Jane told her she was coming for a long weekend.
“Yeah, I guess it’s okay if you come. Bringing the dog?”
That was practically a welcome-home banner strung across the lawn in Nellie language!
Speaking of banners, or thinking of them, as Jane was, she saw something flapping in the breeze on Court Street as she made her way through downtown Kankakee. Held taut by wires across the street from the courthouse, there was a bright yellow banner.
“Maybe there’s a big church rummage sale this weekend, Rita,” said Jane, feeling like everything was going her way. Maybe this would be her first visit to Kankakee where nothing terrible happened. Her parents would stay well, she wouldn’t discover any new relatives, no skeletons would be unearthed, no beams would fall on anyone, no one would discover an old body, an old theft, an old forgery, no poisonings would occur, no nail guns would be fired, and no schemes to liven up Kankakee would be hatched by Tim. Maybe she would go to an auction and find a box of vintage pottery, a bag of Bakelite bangles, and, for good measure, an old sewing box with a sterling silver thimble case. Maybe this would be her lucky weekend.
Jane stopped at the red light and looked over at the banner.
LUCKY KILLED THEM IN LAS VEGAS!
Jane could see from where she sat at the light, there was another banner planted on the parkway a few buildings down.
LUCKY KILLED THEM IN BRANSON!
“What the hell does that mean?” Jane asked. Rita pulled her nose in from her window and turned her head to Jane. She looked as puzzled as her mistress. On the next block was another banner.
NOW LUCKY’S GONNA GET KILLED IN KANKAKEE!
Maybe some football player from a rival team? Was there some big game? Would they actually allow the kids to put up signs about being killed?
KANKAKEE’S FAVORITE SON’S COMEDY ROAST
TAPED LIVE—IN KANKAKEE, ILLINOIS!
Under the words of this next banner was a caricature of a man with a cigar in his mouth, a pouf of black hair and a toothy grin.
“Well, Rita, that must be Lucky,” said Jane, and added, “whoever the hell he is.”
Jane was at another stoplight, staring at this last banner when her phone rang.
Jane clicked it on speaker to answer.
“Are you driving, Jane? Pull over,” said Melinda. Jane could hear her chewing something crunchy.
Jane did as she was told. What could have happened? Did a water pipe burst? A fire? Gas explosion?
Jane parked in front of a lawn sign that had been stuck into a large concrete planter in front of what used to be Kresge’s Dime Store.
TODAY’S YOUR LUCKY DAY read the sign with that same grinning, cigar-smoking face outlined underneath the lettering.
“Today’s your lucky day,” said Melinda.
“How did you know?” asked Jane, thinking somehow she must be sending a picture of what she was looking at. Just how smart was this smart phone?
“How did I know?” asked Melinda, chomping away at what sounded like two stalks of celery. “Find a new place to live, Jane Wheel, because you just sold your house!”
Copyright © 2012 by Sharon Fiffer