ONE DAY EARLIER
Autumn’s arrival meant the onset of headless mousey season out on Big Sister Island. Or at least it did in Mitch Berger’s little corner of it.
Shortly before dawn, Mitch’s rugged outdoor hunter, Quirt, deposited a fresh head-free corpse on the welcome mat of Mitch’s antique post-and-beam carriage house and meowed to be let in. And meowed. And meowed. Upstairs in his sleeping loft, Mitch reluctantly stirred. Next to him on the bed, Clemmie, his gray-and-white short hair, did not so much as open an eye. Not even a hurricane could rouse Clemmie. In fact, with each passing day, Mitch was becoming more and more convinced that she had been genetically altered into a meat loaf.
Yawning, Mitch padded barefoot down the narrow stairs into the living room and waddled to the front door, flicking on the porch light to find one orange tabby who was immensely proud of himself and one white-footed field mouse who was missing his or her head.
It definitely took some getting used to as a morning wake-up call.
Quirt immediately made straight for the kibble bowl. The mouse stayed outside. Later, Mitch would bury him. Her. It. A small ceremony, nondenominational. Right now, he put the coffee on, watching Quirt chew his way steadily through his breakfast. Quirt had been a feral stray until he was six months old, same as Clemmie, but the two could not have turned out more different. Quirt remained a sinewy outdoorsman who did not linger inside unless it was raining. On those rare occasions when he would consent to sit in Mitch’s lap he’d squirm and wriggle and make this unbelievably strange noise in his throat that sounded more like Gorgo, the monster that rose from the ocean’s depths, than it did a pussy cat. Clemmie, on the other hand, never went outside, never stalked anything more threatening than dust and spent so much time in Mitch’s lap that he sometimes felt she was attached to him by Velcro.
Mitch had not actually chosen to adopt either one of them. The new lady in his life was one of those kindhearted people who rescued feral strays from supermarket dumpsters and she had, well, forced them on him. But now that they were settled in he could not imagine life without them.
While his coffee brewed, Mitch shaved and put on a baggy fisherman’s-knit sweater, rumpled khakis and his wading boots. Then he poured himself a fresh hot cup, topping it off with two fingers of the rich chocolate milk that came in glass bottles from a dairy in Salem. He stood there sipping it contentedly and watching the purple-streaked dawn sky through the big windows that looked out over Long Island Sound in three different directions. A few fishing boats were heading out. Squadrons of geese flew overhead, honking. Otherwise, it was so quiet he could hear the water lapping at the rocks outside his door.
This was his first autumn in the cottage on Big Sister, a family-held island off Dorset, the historic New England village situated at the mouth of the Connecticut River halfway between New York City and Boston. The summer people were gone now, the kids back in school. The water was bluer and colder, the sky clearer and spiced with the smell of wood smoke. Migratory barn swallows and monarch butterflies filled his trees by the thousands, pausing to feed on insects before they took off again like a cloud for the Carolinas. With each passing day, the afternoon shadows grew longer and longer.
Mitch was the only one on the island who was not a Peck by birth or marriage. Right now, he was also the only one in residence, which meant he could enjoy the rare luxury of playing his beloved sky-blue Fender Stratocaster as ear-splittingly loud as he pleased. There was a decommissioned lighthouse on Big Sister, the second tallest in New England. There were four other houses on the island besides Mitch’s, forty acres of woods, a private dock, a beach that Mitch alone used, tennis courts that no one used. A rickety wooden causeway connected it to the mainland at Peck Point, a preserve that belonged to the Nature Conservancy. Paradise. It was a Yankee paradise.
For Mitch Berger, a pure-blooded New York City screening-room rat, it was also a brave new world. He had taught himself to garden. Bought a palm-sized pair of bird-watching glasses and well-thumbed copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds, a high-low thermometer, barometer, tide clock, and a rain gauge that was calibrated to one-hundredth of an inch. He yearned for a telescope, too, but worried that he might turn into one of those unshaven old geezers whom he’d seen around town with egg-yolk stains down the front of their Mackinaw bib overalls, the ones who kept bees and railed on to total strangers about the virtues of the flat tax.
Still, he was really looking forward to the Leonid meteor shower on November 16.
At age thirty-two, Mitch was lead film critic for the most prestigious and therefore lowest-paying of the three New York City daily newspapers. He was also the author of two highly entertaining film reference books, Shoot My Wife, Please and It Came From Beneath the Sink. Mitch loved what he did for a living. He especially loved this time of year in the film calendar. The bloated, over-hyped idiocy of the summer blockbuster season had been put to bed. He had been revived by the quirky talents on display at the Toronto and New York film festivals. And now he had several clear weeks before the Christmas screenings to spend out here on They Went Thataway, his woefully overdue guide to Westerns, which explained the discs, files, books and video cassettes that were heaped everywhere.
Last night he had e-mailed news of this to his editor at the paper, Lacy Mickerson. Mitch fired up his G-4 and logged on to see if she had replied. She had. Her response began with two well-chosen words: As if. Because Lacy knew perfectly well the real reason Mitch wanted to be out there. She continued: But if you insist on playing small-town boy, how about that Cookie Commerce article?
This was in reference to the so-called Serious Fun Edict devised by the new executive editor, who was encouraging staffers to branch out into other sections of the paper. The Knicks-beat reporter, for instance, recently got a chance to spend an entire fun-filled day hanging at the U.S. Supreme Court with Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Mitch was being steered toward the food section by Lacy based on something he’d mentioned to her at lunch one day.
His e-mailed response to her on this day: Still searching for a hook. Which was newspeak for: Go away and leave me alone.
He shut down his computer and started in on his morning chores. Scooped up that headless corpse with a garden trowel and buried it out behind the barn with the others, wondering what an archaeologist would make of this site in five thousand years. Headed down the path to the island’s beach with a trash bag. Trudging along the sand, alone except for a family of cormorants, Mitch dutifully picked up the plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and beer cans that had washed ashore from the fishing boats in the night. People, he had discovered, were absolute pigs.
He returned to his cottage, puffing slightly, and went to work with a rake on the leaves that had fallen in his beds, relishing the physical activity. Mitch was a big guy, just over six feet tall, burly when he was in shape, pudgy when he was not. Since his job called for him to spend every working hour in the dark on his butt, he could morph into the Pillsbury Doughboy if he was not careful. Being out here kept him in tip-top shape. The biceps under his Rocky Dies Yellow tattoo positively rippled. Okay, maybe it didn’t really ripple, but it was a biceps.
He dumped the gathered leaves into a wire enclosure where they would quietly rot into mulch. Then he put on his work gloves and cut back the honeysuckle and wild blackberry vines that were threatening to engulf his whole house. These invasive predators he could not compost—he loaded them into the back of his bulbous, kidney-colored 1956 Studebaker pickup and tied a tarp over them. Mitch paused to cut a generous bunch of fresh white Japanese anemones from his garden, then hopped into his truck with the flowers and went toodling off across the rickety wooden causeway toward town.
The leaves on the old sugar maples that lined Dorset Street were turning a million different glorious shades of orange. John the Barber was out early sweeping the walk in front of his shop. Bill the Mobile Vet was stocking the medicine drawers in his truck outside his house. Over at the Grange Hall a hand-lettered sign announced that performances of the Dorset Players’ fall production of Bye Bye Birdie were under way. The volunteer fire department was running its annual cow-chip raffle—first prize was a thousand dollars. Lew the Plumber was busy hosing down one of the fire trucks. He waved to Mitch. Mitch waved back. Rita, who worked behind the counter at the drugstore, was taking her morning power walk. She waved to Mitch, too. And, if he had cared to stop, would no doubt have asked him how he was making out with his jock itch.
Outside Center School, the charming circa 1912 elementary school located directly across Dorset Street from town hall, there were countless red SAVE OUR SCHOOL ribbons and green WE CARE ribbons festooning the trees. Center School was the focus of a heated local controversy. There were problems with its ventilation system—kids had complained of mold-spore-related respiratory problems last year, as well as nausea and headaches. Concerned parents, most of them the newer arrivals in town, had denounced the school as a health risk. This group, which called itself WE CARE, wanted Center School to be replaced by a new high-tech school that would be built on forty acres of woods on the outskirts of town and be able to hold twice as many students. Their SAVE OUR SCHOOL opponents, most of them folks who had grown up in Dorset, merely wanted the existing school to be renovated and upgraded.
The issue would be settled in a special election on November 1, when a thirty-four-million-dollar bond issue to finance the proposed school was scheduled for a vote. For a town with a year-round population of less than seven thousand, it was a major financial undertaking. It was also a referendum on the very future of Dorset. Opponents were sure that if Center School got torn down it would strip the village of its small-town character. They also believed a giant new school would open the door to rampant suburbanization. Their mantra: If the school doesn’t grow, the town can’t grow. Proponents argued that those who opposed the plan were living in the past, not to mention cheap, selfish and sadistic for putting Dorset’s kids at risk for the sake of a little charm.
The issue was pitting neighbor against neighbor. Tempers were flaring. No one was neutral. The nine-member school board was itself sharply divided—five members were for it, four against. Dorset’s longtime school superintendent, Colin Falconer, was against the plan, pitting him directly against its biggest backer, school board president Babette Leanse, a sharp-tongued new arrival from New York. A prominent architect, Babette Leanse was married to Bruce Leanse, the most famous real estate tycoon not to be named Donald Trump. The Brat, the New York tabloids called Bruce Leanse, who was busy bulldozing hundreds of acres of Dorset’s farmland and forest to make way for new designer mansions.
Mitch opposed the new school. He liked Dorset the way it was. That was why he had moved here—because it wasn’t suburbia. But he was aware that he might feel different if he had kids. And, after losing his beloved wife Maisie to ovarian cancer, Mitch was well aware of something else: As hard as it might be to hold on to the past, it’s even harder to hold on to the present.
He stopped in at the market to shop for Sheila Enman, a retired schoolteacher who had just turned ninety and couldn’t get out much anymore. Mitch bought her a box of Cream of Wheat, milk, eggs, a half dozen bars of bittersweet chocolate and several gallons of the Clamato juice she loved. Also a jumbo-sized tub of sour cream, which she would go through in less than three days. The old girl went through sour cream so fast, Mitch wondered if she bathed in it.
On his way up Route 156 he dropped the stuff off at her house, an amazing old mill house built out over the Eight Mile River directly in front of a waterfall. Sheila had lived there since she was a girl. Her kitchen door was unlocked, her bedroom door shut. She wasn’t up yet. Mitch stowed the groceries and put the anemones he’d cut for her in a vase on the kitchen table. She’d left money for the groceries on the kitchen counter, not to mention his payment: a sandwich bag filled with her homemade chocolate chip cookies. Sheila’s chocolate chip cookies were the finest Mitch had ever eaten—big and chewy and filled with gooey chocolate chunks. He marketed for her twice a week in exchange for them. Reputedly, Sheila also made a killer lemon meringue pie, but Bob Paffin had that franchise all sewn up. Dorset’s white-haired first selectman still shoveled Sheila’s walk for her whenever it snowed, just as he had done back when he was in high school, in exchange for one of her pies.
Mitch was discovering that this kind of payment system was the invisible commerce that held Dorset together. Cookie Commerce, Sheila called it. Lacy wanted him to write about it. Mitch was tempted. He had already written a lighthearted piece for the travel section on Dorset, as well as a longer, more sober article for the Sunday magazine on the disappearance of one of Big Sister Island’s residents. He found the place quirky and intriguing. And he had always admired the way one of his idols, E. B. White, had written about the life he’d found on his saltwater farm in Maine. Maybe this was something he could do, too. A way for him to grow as a journalist now that he’d ventured out of the movie theater and into the sunlight, stumbling and blinking. Then again, writing about people whom he knew as friends was something entirely foreign to him. He wasn’t sure he felt comfortable with that idea. That was why he’d put Lacy off.
That and the fact that he really, truly had no hook.
He jumped back in his truck and continued up the narrow country road to the dump, munching contentedly on one of his cookies as the morning sun broke brightly through the autumn foliage. The cookies were all gone by the time Mitch got there. First he backed up to the brush pile and unloaded his vines and brambles, then he eased the Studey over to the green Dumpster where folks deposited their metal items. A picker’s paradise. Mitch almost always came home with something choice. In fact, he’d furnished his whole house at the dump—his desk, bookcases, chairs, lamps, lawn furniture—the works.
On this particular morning, he was not alone. Another man had descended the ladder to the bottom of the bin and was sorting his way through the things that people had left behind. He was an old man, well into his seventies, with a scruffy white beard and a wild, uncombed mane of hair. He wore a beat-up black leather jacket, filthy corduroy trousers and work boots. His vintage motorcycle, complete with sidecar, was parked nearby, leather helmet and goggles hanging from its handlebars.
“It’s no mm-rr-McDougal’s House of Horrors,” the old man growled up at him. “But it’ll do, wouldn’t you say?”
“Excuse me?” Mitch responded, frowning at him.
The old man sported a mouthful of crooked teeth ranging in color from yellow to brown to black. He sounded as if he were gargling lumpy mashed potatoes. Plus he reeked of whiskey. “Well, you’re Mitchell Berger, aren’t you?” he demanded, staring up at Mitch with eyes that were shockingly clear and blue and lit with intensity.
“Why, yes. Yes, I am.”
“Sure you are. Recognized you from mm-rr-your picture. Only writer worth reading in the whole damned paper. Rest of ’em are a bunch of bed wetters and suck-ups. Well, did you or did you not write that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was your all-time favorite Halloween film?”
“I-I did . . .” Mitch stammered, stunned. It had just hit him. He had not happened upon just any old wino. The old man standing down in that bin was Dorset’s most famous and reclusive resident, Wendell Frye, the man who had single-handedly redefined modern American sculpture. Andy Warhol had transformed a Campbell’s soup can into art. Wendell Frye had done the same for the automobile hubcap. His towering, breathtaking scrap-metal sculptures graced plazas and parks throughout the world, his name echoing alongside that of Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi and Ellsworth Kelly. He was a giant, a genius. He was also someone who hated prying eyes, publicity, critics and virtually anything to do with the art world. Wendell Frye hadn’t granted an interview in at least twenty years. If the art critic from Mitch’s paper somehow got a chance to meet him she would, well, plotz. And here Mitch was standing in a Dumpster talking to him about Abbott and Costello.
“Must have seen that movie fifty times,” the old man muttered, fishing an unfiltered Lucky Strike from a rumpled pack in his leather jacket. His hands were huge and knobby and scarred. He lit his cigarette with a battered Zippo lighter and pulled on it deeply, setting off a cough that seemed to rumble up from the pit of his stomach. “I love when they’re searching for the mm-rr-monster down in Dracula’s dungeon. Those wonderful slimy walls and cobwebs.” He seemed quite chatty for a recluse, Mitch couldn’t help but notice. “And then when part of the wall swivels around and Bud finds himself in that secret chamber with Karloff.”
“Strange,” Mitch spoke up.
“It’s hilarious is what it is!”
“No, no. I mean it’s not Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein’s monster in that movie. It’s Glenn Strange.”
Wendell Frye peered up at him, befuddled. “You’re kidding me.”
“I never kid about credits, Mr. Frye.”
“Christ, don’t call me that.” The great artist seemed genuinely hurt, as if he’d extended his big hand in friendship and Mitch had slapped it away. “It’s Hangtown.”
Excerpted from The Hot Pink Farmhouse by David Handler.
Copyright 2002 by David Handler.
Published in November 2003 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.