Detective Bragg's Retirement
a short story
He wanted the house. I didn't. But I accepted the monstrosity on a swampy mess of land that was listed as a mansion on a lake. It may have once been a mansion, but the lake had never been anything more than a swamp. The house was rickety and cold, the floors groaned and sank as you walked, and sometimes … sometimes... they shifted in an odd way.
He liked the house so there was no discussion. We moved into the big, white, clapboard structure set on fifty acres bordering a swamp just outside Savannah. The wallpaper hung exposing mold, the floors creaked and were so soft in places it felt as though the swamp had already taken over and the paint peeled and chipped. I swear it was not my doing, but here I am.
He watches me. All the time he sees me and maybe he even sees my thoughts. I've cleaned the gardens as he demanded. He didn't ask me to clean them and he didn't help me. He demanded and I did as I was told.
The garden was huge and held so many plants that needed trimming and weeds that needed digging that I spent three months, much sweat and too many blisters to recall to set it in shape. I uprooted the old fountain, replaced the rock and cleaned the weeds away. He didn't say a word as the water began to flow again and he didn't lend a hand. He sat in the rocking chair in the big sunroom and just observed.
I work nights in the city morgue, I check in dead people and I release them. I'm not quite sure if I could explain how I happened upon this job, because it’s hard for me to remember how long I’ve worked here. It seems I am one of those people that life just happens to and I try to fall in line. I don't know how I got the job, but here I am. I check in and check out deceased folks as though I'm in charge of some otherworldly hotel desk, renting space to the dead for a day or two until their families or the state picks them up.
Tonight I have entered Sara Lee Bean and Lucus Cecil Mckenzie and released Joseph Emery Sanders, Ms. Lucy Moore, teenager William A. Callahan and the very tiny baby named Roshell Liz Bathens. It's a tough job, but I try to treat the dead with respect. The kids are the worst, the kids are always the worst. The old folks, you understand. The middle aged you just figure they had a chance to live, but the kids and the teenagers, well... they never had a chance.
I met him in a bar. I was watching the band and having a drink and he was the brooding guy in the corner. He looked like Jim Morrison in one of those black and white posters you see in music and book stores. His hair was long, dark and curly, his lips full and full of promise and he wore a leather jacket. He didn't speak, much like he doesn't of late, but there was something that drew me in like a magnet to steel.
At first the relationship was hot, as promising as I knew his lips would be when I first saw him sitting in the corner nursing a beer. At first it was the inspiration behind every sonnet or love song ever written, but looking back, I can't remember his words. Had he ever spoken? I can't remember his words.
I want to laugh right now, big guffaws of revelation, but I'm choking them back because if someone would walk in on me rolling in the floor, laughing so hard I wet my pants, a mental hospital would be the least of my worries. It's not proper to laugh while in charge of the dead and I’m afraid if I start laughing I won’t be able to stop.
I never heard him speak, though. That's why I want to laugh. I moved into a clapboard, rickety, old, three-story mansion slowly descending into a swamp with a man who looks like Jim Morrison, who makes demands, but never speaks. He rocks, he stares, he judges, he soothes, but he never says a word.
I try to reach back in my mind and attempt to remember how he came to be living with me, but I can't. I remember seeing him sitting in the corner when I pulled my eyes from the tight-jeaned lead singer and then I remember waking up with him sitting in my apartment, rocking slowly. I don't remember having sex with him, I don't remember a kiss or a conversation. I just woke the next morning and he was sitting in the rocking chair in front of the French doors that looked out onto the street below.
I gave up my apartment, the apartment I'd dreamed of since I was a child, big open rooms, high ceilings and a balcony overlooking a busy street in Savannah. I gave it up for a sulky, demanding Jim Morrison look-a-like who doesn't have sex with me and doesn't speak.
I don't even know his name.
It's almost time for me to go home and there he will be, waiting for me in the sunroom as the morning light shines on the murky water. He'll rock and demand and what will his demands be today? Glazing glass? Stripping floors? Plumbing? Painting? Something. He doesn't understand the need for sleep or the need to eat. He doesn't eat and I haven't eaten much since he moved in. I'm down thirty pounds or more since I met him. My ribs show through my skin and my belly looks like those of the corpses thrown in a ditch after some genocide.
Surprisingly, I was allowed to sleep today. When I first stepped into the house he set me to scraping old paint off ancient, wooden, window frames, but then he lost interest in my task. If I left a little crumbling white lead on the frame, he didn’t complain, he wasn’t even watching me. He rocked with his eyes closed, not sleeping, but not focused on me for what seems like the first time in months. Around noon he let me go and I fell into a dreamless sleep. I woke with just minutes to get ready for work, and he didn’t acknowledge me as I passed through the dark sunroom on my way out the door.
Something has changed and I’m afraid.
You would have thought I’d have been afraid these last months with his constant, quiet, brooding attention, but the silence under his typical silence is more frightening than anything I’ve known. He didn’t even open his eyes as I passed through the room, he didn’t acknowledge me in any way and I felt emptiness somewhere in the place between my chest and my shoulder blades, as though the breath I have been holding for all these months had finally been released.
I was looking over the paperwork on Terri Cusack, a teenage girl who died in a car accident, when I heard commotion outside the double doors that led to the loading dock. Rusty Belfair was the chauffeur of the dead, much like I was the dead’s hotel clerk and he was bringing me a new resident, but he wasn’t alone. I stepped through the door to find him pushing a white shrouded stretcher across the concrete. “It’s going to be a busy night, the ME is on his way in.” Rusty pushed the wheeled conveyance into the room followed by two detectives. “Seems we have a murder.”
I didn’t like dealing with murders. Murders brought people into my sedate night shift who I rarely saw. Murders brought questions, chaos and noise into my typically quiet time with the dead. Rusty followed me down that long dark hall, flipping on lights behind me. I followed him into the examination room and he began setting the room to rights, so the medical examiner could just come in and get to work.
“It’s a freaking mummy,” Bragg, one of the regular night-beat cops, said and shuddered, while his partner, Stanton, laughed. “God knows how long he’d been sealed in that wall in Brewster’s Tavern.” Bragg was regaining his control and caught himself mid shudder, giving a half-hearted smile. “I have claustrophobia, I couldn’t imagine…” He shook his head. “Anyway, the owner said that the earthquake we had a few months back cracked the wall, and every time a truck drove by it cracked a little more and was crumbling away, so he decided to tear it down and build a new one. Found that guy inside.” Bragg, containing the shakes as best as he could, explained.
Rusty pulled the sheet off the body and I stared down at the dried out husk of a man. His hair was dark and long, probably longer in death than it had been in life and his face was drawn up like a rotted apple. He still wore a leather jacket and if it had ever been supple and smooth, now it was just stiff and dusty. His jeans were tattered and threadbare and his shoes were withered and moldy.
“Judging by his clothes I don’t think he’s been in there that long, the building was built in the late 1800s and has had dozens of owners and has been renovated many times. We’ve got to get a time of death to even begin to know where to look.” Stanton patted his coat pockets and found a pack of cigarettes. “I’m going to have a smoke and wait for the ME.”
I watched Rusty move the body onto the autopsy table and was surprised at how little a human body could weigh. “Never a dull day,” Rusty said pushing the stretcher back toward his van.
The scent of brewing coffee filled air and I walked back to the exam room and stared at the body. I was alone, the detectives were on the loading dock, smoking and waiting for the medical examiner, and I couldn’t seem to pull my eyes away from desiccated corpse on the metal table.
I met him in Brewster’s Tavern. The earthquake had disturbed me; we didn’t typically have earthquakes in Georgia. I couldn’t seem to calm myself and decided to have a few drinks.
I didn’t see him when I first arrived. The band was going over a sound check and there were only half a dozen regulars nursing drinks at the bar. Most were talking about the earthquake and watching the big screen in the corner that showed the worst of the damage in North Carolina and Virginia. People began drifting in, I had a few drinks, moved slowly to the music and that’s when I noticed him.
I have no other memory from that night. I don’t remember walking home, I don’t remember going to bed or whether or not he and I had a discussion or sex. All I do remember is waking the next day with him slowly rocking in front of the French doors. A few days later I had moved into the crumbling old plantation house and my work began.
I stepped away from the door as I heard the ME enter the building, the waiting officers followed him and two more had joined the fray. “We found a wallet on the floor of his tomb. Says his name is Reginald Maybaum, old South money. He disappeared in 1969, it was big news, some say he was killed, and others say he ran off with his girlfriend who the family didn’t approve of. He was so important in his day that the department formed a task force, but never found a sign of him. He was young, good-looking and rich and it was the height of the free-love generation, they finally decided he ran off to New York or California like lots of other young people had done. Now we have another body.”
I looked down at the sheet covered stretcher as Rusty passed and the area between my chest and shoulders felt more hollow and empty than it had when I came to work.
“It’s a woman,” one of the officers following Rusty explained. “Tucked away in a little tomb right next to the guy. No ID that we could find, though. In 1969 when Reginald disappeared, his girl did too, not that the police were very concerned about her. She was nobody; no family of any means and lived on the wrong side of the tracks. She was just a footnote in the investigation.” The medical examiner and Rusty moved the body to an autopsy table and pulled away the sheet.
The first thing I noticed was the cotton print dress, the colors had faded with the years, but the pattern was instantly recognizable. I’d made the dress myself in the summer of 1969. It was to be my elopement dress. I searched for weeks to find just the right print; the perfect weight and I pieced it together in the patch of sun that the French doors let into my apartment.
“Marti Davis was the girl’s name, just nineteen when she disappeared.”
The medical examiner picked up a lighted magnifying glass and studied the neck of the empty shell. “The beads on her necklace spell out Marti,” he said. He set the magnifying glass down and adjusted the big overhead lamp to shine on the victim. “Both died of a gunshot wound to the head.”
“So we just solved a 40 year old missing persons case. Good job, guys,” the older of the cops turned away and headed to the coffee pot.
I fell against the wall, my chest slowly deflating, and gasped for air. I remember walking into the pub down on Warf St. It was closed, a buddy of Reggie’s had just bought it, and renovations were under way. I remember his smile as I stepped through the door in my yellow dress covered in tiny red roses. He and his friend were having an argument as I entered, but Reggie turned, smiled and with a loud explosion of gunfire, he fell to the dusty floor. I screamed and ran to him.
I slid down the wall, all strength and oxygen leaving my body in a dusty cloud.
“Reginald Maybaum lived out in that old plantation house on Maybaum Swamp and Marti Davis lived at 123 C Levon St.,” an officer read aloud from a notebook he pulled from his jacket pocket.
“That’s weird,” Rusty said. “This is 125 Levon Street.”
“Yeah, this block used to be row houses turned into cheap apartments. They tore all that down in the 1970s and built the morgue. So I guess Marti really is home,” Bragg shuddered again.
The last of my breath left me on a puff of dirty smoke and I lost consciousness.
I awoke in the sunroom staring through recently polished glass at the sun’s reflection on the murky water. I glanced down at the bright yellow dress with little red roses and then at the crisp white paint on the window frames and the fresh paper on the walls. The room was tastefully decorated in light wood grain antiques and the floor felt solid.
“It’s nice to be home,” Reggie said and stood from the rocker.
“Yes,” I agreed and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Very nice to be home.”
“Let’s take a walk in the garden before breakfast.”
“That sounds wonderful,” I sighed and wrapped my arm through his. “I especially like the fountain.”
We stepped out onto the brick patio and I looked back at the regal plantation home glistening in the morning sun and couldn’t believe my luck that a man like Reginald Maybaum could love a nobody like me.
Bragg pulled down the path as the out-of-control magnolia trees slapped his windshield and tough, dried leaves crackled and popped under his tires. The trees gave way to an overgrown yard and he could barely discern the driveway under the thick grass. He inched along, his eyes glued on the ramshackle old house. The paint peeled grotesquely and a huge hole in the roof had grown black with age and wet mold. He parked in front of the once elaborate staircase and stared up at the porch lined with rotting pillars.
He turned off the engine and listened, the air was full of bird song and squirrel chatter. He stepped out of the car, nervous and attempting to control the now familiar shudders he’d experienced in the last months. His shrink said it was anxiety about the earthquake, a new diagnosis on the east coast since the shaker a few months earlier. He had to admit it did start after the earthquake, but he’d mainly only suffered the cold shakes in the morgue, which made his job as a homicide detective a difficult endeavor.
“Poor bastard,” Bragg muttered, looking up at the towering structure. “Hell of a way to go, Reginald Maybaum.” He walked slowly around the house, taking in the decaying details and feeling a loss that such a grandiose building would soon fall into dust. The ground at the back of the house gave with each step as though he was walking across a marshmallow and he knew soon the house would begin to lean toward the swamp, sinking a little more with each storm that passed.
The earth grew hard again and he realized he was standing on a brick path in what once was an abundant garden. One wall of the house was covered with a thriving wild rose vine, vibrant with small yellow roses shining in the morning sun, but he knew as beautiful as the display was it would only hasten the destruction of the Maybaum house. He glanced at the octagon shaped sunroom, the windows were cracked and broken and some panes had just fallen out of the wooden frames, shattering on the brick patio. He looked into the room, the floor was rotted in places from the rain that flowed through open windows and the wallpaper hung limp and lifelessly, dark with mold. A broken rocking chair was the only piece of furniture.
“Such a shame,” he whispered and shook his head. He turned and tried to imagine what the garden may have looked like when Reginald was alive and then he heard it – the trickle of running water. He glanced up at the roof to see if the gutters were leaking and counted in his head back to the last rainfall. The sound grew louder and a shudder racked his body, this time beyond his ability to control.
The sound wasn’t coming from the house; it was coming from the garden. He followed the echo of trickling water down the brick path and into the wild abandon of the once manicured landscape. “The fountain can’t possibly be running,” he said, pushing through the jungle of azalea, bougainvillea, ivy and jasmine that had fallen out of their planned enclosures to fight for dominance in the sun.
Just as his eyes fell on the old fountain, the sound ebbed away, but not before he heard a light feminine giggle. A shudder raced down his body and his brow broke out in cold sweat. The concrete fountain listed to the left, dislodging the figures of a boy and girl that once sat on the pedestal above the pool and were now shattered on the rocks below. Dandelions and scrub grass battled for position on and around the broken figurines and Bragg felt a barrage of cold shakes overcome him.
He ran back to his car, threw it into gear and slid across the grass as he accelerated. Finally, his tires found traction and he took the magnolia lined lane much too fast and wondered if their snaking limbs would crack his windshield. He stopped at the end of the path and gathered himself before he pulled onto the two lane state road that would bring him back to the city limits of Savannah.