The sixty-four diamond studded Tiffany choke was her only adornment. The tiara lay carefully placed on the dresser, her discarded evening gown thrown hastily over the divan. Stepping into her high heeled pumps, “Miss United States, 1979” picked up the silk sash that had announced her newfound status to the world and re-draped it over her right shoulder and across her body. The new most beautiful woman in America stepped to the mirror and gazed at her perfection.
The door behind her opened to the adjoining suite. Suzette Wilkins smirked and turned, expecting to meet her maker.
“Milkman”, she asked innocently, “is that you?”
With no answer and no one standing at the door, she marched proudly toward the dimly lit suite, displaying her winning wares for the man who had single-handedly brought her this far, literally making her what she was. Through the mine-laden obstacle course of local pageants and small-time benefits, the countless makeovers, dancing classes and charm sessions, the breast enhancements and diet consultations, through Miss Bristol County, Miss Massachusetts, and now Miss United States. “Milkman” had assured her of smooth sailing through that maze and he had proven true. This truly may be the most perfect body in the country, maybe the world, but certainly perfect enough for Suzette’s world. A world borne of trouble and controversy, it was now rising to a level of dignity and acceptance beyond her wildest dream, all from a vote cast just hours ago.
Entering the room she saw no one at first. Then a figure took form, darkened in the corner, sitting in a generously stuffed chair, legs crossed, fully absorbed in the display. Suzette pranced with her head held high as she had paraded across the Charleston Convention Center stage earlier, her stride then observed by over five thousand in attendance and telecast to several million viewers at home. With her fine chamois swimsuit exchanged for her new sash, the show was the same. Only her attitude was different, secure now in victory. This was her maker’s reward.
Four feet in front of the figure, Suzette pirouetted, glanced back with a sultry smile, and cantered away for six steps. She spun and paraded back, slightly exaggerating her moves. With her pupils adjusted to the darkness, Suzette’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Oh, it’s…” she started, but a flash of silver metal caught her eyes.
Suzette froze. Her head was spinning, her mind racing. Her knees weakened. Terror stricken, she felt vulnerable and alone. Her confidence completely evaporated. She wished she were somewhere else, anywhere. She wished she were dressed. Suddenly it wasn’t fun.
A rude alarm was blaring in my ear and I was about to swipe it into oblivion when I remembered how much this last one had set me back. I slammed the snooze-button thinking if it survived that blow, it was worth the bucks.
Five minutes later, my purchase verified as worthwhile, I shut the thing off again, rose and showered. Coffee was ready, but it wasn’t worth it. I made it. I knew then I’d have to hit Dunkin on the way. The phone rang and I cussed. No good calls come before seven in the morning.
“The Hangman,” I answered.
“Mark, John here.”
If he was expecting a statement, he had me. He was the one calling.
“I can’t make it today,” he said, apologetically, “just not up to it.”
I nodded. No big deal. “I understand. Not to worry, I’ve done a few of these by myself.” I was being as soft as I could muster. Deb would like that. Somewhere along the line she got the idea I was “un-tender”. As much as I wanted to tell her off, I figure it’s better to try and meet her half way.
“No, I know. I know you don’t need me.” John was going on. “But I appreciate the offer of a little work. Maybe in a few days.”
“Sure,” I said, tenderly, “there’ll be other jobs that I could use you on. Take care of yourself.”
John thanked me for understanding and hung up. His life was amuck again. The bozo’s third wife just left him and he still hadn’t figured out what hit the first two times. This one will probably send him over the edge for good and I thought the work might help him. Besides, I really didn’t relish stripping four rooms of old wallpaper on a hot summer day.
So I ditched my coffee, loaded the van and headed for the Rosters via the Dunkin Donut window. A new girl was on duty.
“Medium size coffee,” I ordered.
“Regular?” Which in New England means cream and sugar.
“No, dark and bitter, sweetheart,” I said, “just like me.”
Her eyes rolled up but since she didn’t smile, neither did I. If she lasts, I’ll warm up. The way these girls come and go, why waste the energy now?
The twenty-five minute ride to the Roster estate gave me time to ponder John’s situation. Three marriages, all kaput! And he seems to lose a business each time. The guy’s probably earned more money than anyone I know, excepting Alan Roster of course but him I hardly know, yet the van I’m driving is probably worth more than John’s net worth after this last debacle. And Deb wonders why I’m so hesitant about taking the step.
The “step!” Like it’s that simple and that meaningless. Like I’m afraid of commitment. Maybe it’s because I’m not afraid of commitment. Maybe I take marriage just that serious and if and when I do take the “step” I’ll be fully committed. Committed to the point that that will be it. Final. Forever. Till death do us. Maybe I believe in only one mate for life. What do they call that, a monotonous relationship? Something like that. But maybe I really believe in that and that’s why I’m so hesitant. Why doesn’t she think of things like that? Why does she just focus on how non-committal I’ve been and how un-tender I am?
As I drove up to the security gate at the Roster’s, I forced the whole thing out of my mind. I had arrived at my office for the day and was about to punch in. I started by punching the gate button and waiting.
“Yes,” the electronically enhanced voice inquired.
Seven o’clock in the morning, they’re expecting a paperhanger and they’re asking who this might be. Burglars punch buttons and announce themselves? This must be a nice neighborhood if they do.
“The Hangman,” I acknowledged.
The gate swung open.
Arriving at their door with my hands full and burdened down, the maid met me with a quizzical look.
“You’re expecting a good paperhanger?” I asked, smiling.
She nodded vigorously.
“Well,” I said, “they sent me instead.”
Her smile left and I knew I was starting out on the wrong foot. She opened the door enough for me to start in and released it before I could maneuver through. The swinging door spilled my toolbox and got scratched. The maid just frowned. It wasn’t her door.
I was led upstairs to one of the eight bedrooms, then shown all the rooms I’d be doing except where the Rosters were still sleeping. I was handed a clipboard with sample swatches of paper taped to each room description with instructions on what went where and how. Nine rooms, a huge stairwell/hallway combination and four baths, most areas needing stripping and wall prep, easily twenty days’ work. I’d be as loony as a toon before this job ended.
“Good morning. I’m Mrs. Roster.”
I turned to find an impeccably dressed, platinum blonde greeting me. Her hair looked not a day over twenty. The rest of her looked thirty years over.
“Mark. Mark Sinara.” Then for good measure, “The Hangman.”
“Yes,” her voice trailed slightly, “how cute,” as it trailed even more. “The decorator left those instructions for you and the paper is all in the utility room. Tell me, will this be an entire summer’s project?”
“Well, I estimate maybe a month. I may have to break off here and there to take care of other clients, but I shouldn’t be gone much.” Anywhere else, I had customers. In the sixteen million dollar Roster mansion, I had clients.
“A month!” She seemed dubious. “You’re going to do all this work in twenty days? Including all the wall preparation?”
I shrugged. “Yeah.” I looked at her square, “It probably won’t look like much, but I can do it.”
I almost thought she wasn’t going to laugh, but a smile twitched as she turned aside, then she came back into character, verified that I had everything I needed and walked away sultrily.
So that was Joan Roster, matron of Zatir’s, New England’s most prestigious jewelry store. New York had Tiffany’s, Boston had Zatir’s. She’s been hanging around diamonds too long I thought. Ice.
Three trips to the van and I was set up. Stripping the old paper was the messiest and hardest part of the job, so that’s what my task was for the day. It would have been John’s, but on account of three floozies, he wasn’t up to it today. No problem, a tender guy like me can knock these four rooms out in five hours, clean up and prep out at least two rooms by days end.
“Good morning, Mr. Sinara.” Mr. Alan Roster, Zatir’s second generation owner, dressed in a two thousand dollar Italian cut suit, starched white shirt, and matching silk tie and hanky, stood addressing me sternly. I had met him when I came to measure and quote. He scared me then too.
“Hi, Alan.” He bristled at the first name calling. I stood my ground. How angry can he get, I’m only a paperhanger.
“Do you see any problems?” he asked, getting right to the point.
“That’s all I see,” I said, looking around dubiously. “It’s a good thing you hired the best.”
With a slight frown, he turned to make his exit. “Yes,” he quipped, “I could tell that from the price.”
Touché, Alan, touché. It looked like a cold twenty days ahead of me.
He turned back a few steps later with a curt instruction. “Don’t do our room or the adjoining bedroom until Thursday. The whole household will be out then.” So my schedule changed already and I’ve only been here a few minutes. “Other than that, make yourself at home, use whatever areas you need, work whatever hours you want.” Then he was gone.
With the furniture moved to the center and drops laid all around, I pumped and sprayed the bajeebers out of the walls to loosen the existing paper. The trick is to saturate everything beyond what any homeowner, or OSHA, would ever allow, and try not to let them in while you’re at it. With the right saturation, the paper practically falls off.
I hadn’t removed three strips when the first drawing appeared. There would be one in each room. Artist George, an old-timer from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, always left his trademark drawings on the walls he hung paper on. Never a signature, never a date, just his quick-sketch drawings that were museum worthy. He truly was talented. It was a shame he had to always cover up his work. With him long gone, I often mused how I seemed to have taken over his clientele. Easily half my jobs in the Brown and Federal Hill areas of Providence seemed to reveal his signature sketches. Even here in Barrington, twenty miles away, his ghost haunts me.
As I continued the mindless drudgery of spraying and peeling, I kept flip-flopping to thoughts of John and his marriage break-ups and to Deb and her marriage plans. I’d see them both tonight. Maybe I should let them duke it out and whoever’s left standing will dictate my resolve. Good idea, but no contest - Deb would win.
I raced through the day, anxious to get the grunt work over. The maid, Anna, kept popping her head in to check progress. Fortunately the decorator, Michael, never showed up so that was one nuisance avoided. Only one bedroom remained closed to me, Arthur’s, the somewhat challenged brother. He lived down the end of the west wing, but there was no paper to strip there anyway. I’d hang his paper when he comes out for air one day.
In the third and last bedroom to be stripped for the day, a guestroom no doubt, I had a huge bureau that needed to be moved that obviously hadn’t been moved since the day it went in. The feet were practically sealed into the floor and made a clear “snap” as I freed each one. It was on this wall that the drawing revealed itself as the paper fell away. It wasn’t the drawing that grabbed my attention. I was plenty used to them, even good ones like this: A beautiful, park-like setting, tree-lined, with a short row of flowers on the left and some sort of boathouse or some kind of building off to the right in back. Beautifully executed! A regular pencil sketch, whereas most of the others were done in blue pencil. Normally I would have just nodded my approval as I had with all the others and moved on. But something different jumped out: Writing.
Artist George never wrote. He let his pictures do the talking. But off to the left, printed words appeared. Words and an arrow:
IF MISS MA/US MISSING
The arrow pointed to a patch of ground in front of the pond.
“Why does every man deny he’s afraid of commitment?”
Deb was staring daggers at me. And throwing fastballs. I thought the drinks would mellow her, but things seemed to be getting worse.
“Well, speaking for every man,” I boldly pressed on, “I think it’s a sign of intelligence.”
Wrong thing to say. I now had flames to extinguish.
“Think of it,” I continued, “would you really want to marry a man that didn’t take the commitment of marriage seriously? I can always find you a gigolo that would fit that bill, would you want that?”
“Oh, you men are all gigolos of some sort. Some are after sex, some are after freedom. Either way, you all sell out on the woman.”
I threw my hands up and gazed around Tijuana Flats, our regular haunt for the last two years. “How am I selling you out? I take you out to fine establishments like this all the time!”
John appeared just as Deb’s margarita was about to come flying my way. I had never been so glad to see him.
“Hey, guys,” he opened, “we gotta start meeting at The Cheesecake Factory over in Providence Place. They have mint juleps on the menu and they’re most fine.”
Maybe it wasn’t so nice to see him. I could barely afford the Flats every night, forget any upscale watering hole at Providence Place.
“A little louder, John,” I said, “I don’t think the owner heard you.” We both turned to Dave at the bar, smiled and waved. From his frown, my guess is he did hear.
“Deb here thinks men are afraid of commitment,” I said, turning from Dave. “What do you think, John?”
John, the three-time-loser, looked at me in disbelief, then to Deb with even more shock.
“I am now.” And he meant it.
We let the matter rest. It looked like I was in for a tense ride home with Deb, but I was sure she’d resurrect the subject then. We ordered a pitcher of ‘ritas and then our meals. We gabbed about our day and finally the mood seemed right for a change to serious matters.
“Guys, you remember back twenty, twenty-five years ago, maybe more, and there was something about a ‘Miss United States’ disappearing?”
“Sure, Suzette Wilkins.” Deb surprised me.
“1979. She was crowned ‘Miss Massachusetts’ and then ‘Miss United States’ at only 19.” John surprised me even more. “What about it?”
“You guys remember that well? We were only kids!” Then I remembered John was fifty-two, he just never looked it. I mean, acted it. “Well, two of us were kids.” My hand patted his arm to avoid offense.
“Hey, I practically majored in beauty pageants in high school.” Deb was reminiscing fondly.
“Me too.” John was smiling fondly. “And ever since.”
“Did they ever find her?”
“No,” Deb answered, sloshing down a gulp of Margarita after sucking the salt and lime in her unique margarita style, “she won the crown, made her victory walk and shuffled off into oblivion. They figured she absconded with a diamond choke worth a couple mil. That was back then, who knows what it would be worth today.”
“But they could never prove it.” John added, “Didn’t make sense to me anyway. So it might have been worth a few mil, but so wasn’t the title. Plus, the hot rocks would have to be fenced. They’d be worth what, half maybe, if even that? So why go felonious when you already made it honestly?” He slogged down a gulp and asked again, “Why?”
I was impressed. If I scratched my head I could vaguely remember the names Buckey Dent and later, Bill Buckner from my youth. Other than that, I needed a history book.
“You guys really know this stuff! I’m surprised.”
“Hey, we’re talking about beautiful women.” John had a whimsical look. “My specialty.”
“And pageantry. My specialty.” Deb looked dreamy eyed. “You know, ‘I coulda’ been a contenda’.”
We both looked her up and down. That, she could have been.
“Again, why?” John asked.
I swizzled my drink around, then chose my words carefully.
“You all know about Artist George?”
Two nods. John was a house painter between wives, so he knew who I meant, and Deb had heard about him from me.
“Well, I came across some more of his drawings today, down in Bristol of all places. The Roster estate.”
“I’ll drink to that.” John offered.
“Hear, hear!” Deb followed and swigged. I could see I had my work cut out if I wanted their attention.
“One of them had some writing,” I said. “A message.” They stayed quiet.
“It said, ‘If Miss MA/US missing, check here’, and there was an arrow pointing to a spot on the drawing.”
I had their attention. Then to the tune of the “Twilight Zone” theme, Deb goes, “Do-do-do-do. Do-do-do-do.” I lost them again.
“I think he knew something,” I said, trying to bring them back. “Why would he write that?”
“How would he know?” John asked.
“Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? How would he know and what was he trying to say? But it’s too freaky to just ignore, isn’t it?”
We all shut-up for a minute and let it sink in. I guess I had them after all. And freaky was the right word. We were all beginning to spook a little.
“What was the drawing of?” John asked
“A pond, or lake. Trees on both sides, looked like pine on one and oak on the other. There were distinct flowers on one side and a building, maybe a boathouse in the back to the right. The arrow pointed to the flat ground right in front of the water.”
Artist George’s work was always pretty good. They could both imagine it being very realistic and accurate.
“Did you recognize the spot?” Deb inquired.
“No, not off the top of my head,” I said, “but if there’s anything to this, my guess is it’s a spot nearby the house or someplace Artist George frequented.”
We all mulled the thought over, then I tapped into their deep recesses.
“Was there any kind of connection between ‘Miss US’ and the Rosters?” I was fishing. I never really thought they’d know.
“The necklace was courtesy of Zatir Jewelry,” John remembered from something vague in the back of his mind. “It was on loan, but when she turned up missing, the necklace was gone too. Big insurance investigation. Never found out how it all ended.”
“Choke,” Deb stated.
John and I stared blankly. He didn’t know what Deb meant. Neither did I.
“It was a choke, not a necklace,” she explained.
We figured there must be a difference. We really didn’t care.
”You guys really know this stuff?” I asked again, incredulously. “You read about beauty pageants?”
They just shrugged. Our meals came and it excused them from answering. They would probably go on believing they really had lives.
“There’s another connection.” Deb was intoning.
I waited a while, saying nothing. John was just as curious.
“Alan Roster. Back then he was young and single. Cosmo named him one of Boston’s and New England’s most eligible bachelors. And the society pages linked Alan and Suzette as an item.” Then she flicked a nod, like, doesn’t everyone know that?
“We were kids, Deb!” I was befuddled. “How’d you know that?”
With a quick shrug she simply replied, “I was mature for my age.” Then, with a mouthful, “And even then, I wasn’t afraid of commitment.”
We bantered about for the rest of the meal. I knew I’d have to confirm all they were saying by hitting some old newspapers at the library, but their input was enough to get us all thinking there might be something to this. They were believers and now they were worried for me. They both thought it best if I either stayed out of it or called the police and dumped it on them.
“What can I tell the police? They’d put me in a bin.”
“So, you’ll get there a little sooner. You’re a paperhanger,” John was prophesying. “It’s your destiny.” Cute, I thought. But true.
We called it an evening around eleven. I drove Deb home to Warwick, most of the time explaining to her the economics of marriage and then the economics of paperhanging. With her nursing career, we could make it work, but what about little ones? That would surely throw the delicate economic balance off kilter. Or did she not want to make a commitment to raising a family. It was a cold look that I got. Then she launched on my not being tender again.
After dropping her off, I headed back to my apartment in Rehoboth. The background John and Deb had given me about what’s-her-name, Suzette(?) kept playing in my head. There seemed to be enough of a connection between Suzette and Alan Roster, but how would an old-time paperhanger fit in? What could he have seen or heard? Come to think of it, after all these years and the stories told about him, I didn’t even know what had become of him. I assumed he died, all the stories told seemed to speak of him in the past tense.
I knew people that knew him. I’d ask around. If his wife was still around, maybe I could look her up. She’d be flattered that a young rookie like me is so interested in her husband. Wouldn’t she?
Before hitting the sheets, I grabbed the area phonebooks and checked if Artist George’s wife was listed. Bridgeman was his name, from Taunton. I scanned the column and found a Ruth Bridgeman. I jotted down her number so I could try tomorrow, then the address for good measure. I checked that the alarm was set and patted it gently. I really had meant no harm this morning.
The coffee was worse this morning than last. Two sips and I spilled the swill down the drain. I had thought if I made it stronger, I’d overpower any other mistakes. That was a mistake.
After a Dunkin stop, yes, she was still there, and an anxious drive to Bristol, I made the gate by only ten after seven. They still wondered who it might be and “The Hangman” was still the secret password. What would it take for a burglar to figure that out?
I marched upstairs to the bedroom containing Artist George’s most talked about masterpiece and was greeted with an even bigger surprise than yesterday. The drawing was gone.
With the three rooms stripped and prepped, most of the dirty work done, I was set up to start hanging. The first hour was spent engineering the room and cutting the rolls. I always cut all the paper first. It keeps the customers away since most of them don’t like heart attacks. It was only then that my first fan popped their head in. It was Anna, the maid, or whatever they called her.
“Any’ting up yet?” she asked in her cute accent, smiling anxiously.
“No,” I said, “I’m still praying.”
She took me seriously and started to bow out. I forgot she was Filipino. I’d have to bone up on their humor.
“Just kidding,” I said. “Come here. I’ve got a question.”
Anna started back in, thoroughly confused now.
“Anna, who came in yesterday and worked on the walls?” She looked at me still confused. The word ‘walls’ was obviously forming on her lips.
“Walls? Work on walls? What you mean?”
I motioned to the area where the drawing used to be. Now it was cleaner than the day it was plastered. Someone must have scrubbed the life out of it, then put a quick coating of some sort of sealer over it. Whatever they did, they had successfully eradicated any trace of the drawing or the message. It was the only drawing that was gone in all the rooms.
“There was a drawing on the wall there and now it’s gone. Scrubbed and covered over by this thin white sealer.”
“No-o-o-o, no. I no scrub wall.” She was half sounding like I was crazy and half sounding like I was accusing her.
“I didn’t think so.” I wanted to calm her. “And I don’t mind, whoever did it. I just wondered why. Any idea who might have done it?”
Now she knew I wasn’t accusing her. That left her thinking I was crazy.
“I no know.” She shook her head slightly.
“You don’t think Mr. Roster did it? Alan Roster?”
She kept shaking her head. Alan Roster engage in physical work? I was looking crazier by the moment.
“Maybe Arthur?” I couldn’t imagine the pristine Mrs. Roster scrubbing, so I skipped over her. Then again, to cover a crime? But I still wasn’t about to question her. Why would Joan be involved?
“No. No, Artur no come in here, I tink.”
“Does he sleep all day? Maybe he gets up in the night and does strange things.”
Her head hadn’t stopped shaking yet. She just wasn’t buying my story. “Mr. Artur no sleep all day. He up before sun, always. He work in his room or go for long walks. Yesterday he go to store for afternoon and most night.”
“Store,” I thought, “you mean shopping?”
“No, Jewry store. He work d’ere sometime.”
Though Arthur was the older of the two, he had been born with mild deficiencies of some sort, I had always heard. He was still part of the business, but when their father, the founder of Zatir’s, passed on, it was Alan, the younger, who took the reins. Alan had parlayed the position into quite a social coup becoming a society star and a national celebrity of sorts. Rich, good looking and at the top of his industry, he shared his wealth and prosperity with his brother unquestionably, but the spotlight he kept to himself. All this I knew from rumors and hearsay and from doing one small job here previously.
“Okay,” I said, “It doesn’t really matter. But if you find anything out about someone cleaning the wall, I’d appreciate knowing.” Then I thought I should add an addendum. “But don’t go asking around. It’s not important.”
Anna wasn’t gone more than two minutes when Mrs. Roster appeared from nowhere again.
“Anything up yet?” Still somber, still stern.
“No, I’m still praying,” I joked again.
She turned a cool head in my direction. “Oh, are you Bahai?”
“No, I’m kidding,” I replied.
“Oh,” as she looked back disappointedly at the still bare wall, “I’m Rastafarian.”
Something didn’t click. “No doubt,” I said.
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about who scrubbed a section of the wall over there, would you?” I nodded nonchalantly in the direction of the missing sketch.
“Who did what?” she puzzled.
“Someone washed off a drawing on the wall. No harm, but I’d like to know what they put over it. Some sort of sealer or something, and it might affect
Joan looked more confused.
“Why would someone scrub one of your walls?”
Finally someone who recognized that when I’m on the job, they’re my walls. Joan Roster curtly turned and left. If this was her way of warming up, we were going to need more than twenty days.
I was just about to start pasting when I felt his presence. Alan Roster stood as stern and icy as ever, staring at the bare walls. “Nothing yet?” He was almost talking to himself.
I debated, then thought, why not? “I was just finishing praying.”
He shot a cold look through me. Not the least cracking at the corners of his lips. “You may need it.” Still, like he was talking to himself. Then he started to fade away. Some jobs you just don’t price right and I knew then, I was way under on this one.
Before he could get away, I called out, “Mr. Roster,” I lowered myself by dropping the first name calling, but I wanted his attention, “did you scrub off the drawing over here?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“There was a drawing on the wall here, a sketch of some kind. Like the other ones in the other rooms. But someone washed it off and put something over it. I’d like to know what it is.”
He scoffed at the very idea. “It wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t know where to begin.” Abruptly he turned and drifted away.
It was time for me to start work. With three sheets pasted, I mounted the ladder and was dropping the first one when I sensed another presence. Arthur Roster stood at the doorway, poised in a slight slouch with a half-smile fixed on his face. He nodded a hello and looked everywhere for some paper already up.
“Just starting to hang now,” I said.
He smiled a little more. “If it were me,” he said kindly, “I’d probably be praying about now.”
I did a double-take. And this was the slow one? I smiled at him, even gave him a little laugh, politely ignoring the fact he was stealing my lines. How refreshing to have some warmth in this place. I almost didn’t even ask about the drawing, but he was the last one. Why not?
“Was it you that scrubbed the wall clean over here? There was a drawing, like the others, but it’s not there now.”
He was nodding agreement. “Yes, I remember seeing it yesterday. But no, no I never touched it.” An honesty emanated from him. “It seems like such a shame to cover over such nice work. Worse still to wash it off.”
I had never met Arthur before now, but he was all right in my book. We shot the breeze a bit and he watched the first two strips go up. Leaving me with his approval, he found his way out, walking slowly with an all but undetectable limp.
Since no one was owning up to the anti-graffiti campaign, I knew I’d have to continue on my own. No big surprise. I knocked off early so I could restock my supplies and figured Joe at Wallpaper Village may steer me in the right direction about Ruth Bridgeman. Joe’s been around forever and would know the scoop. From there I could hit the library, which if I remembered, was open on Tuesday evenings.
At Wallpaper Village, I slipped my left hand down under my belt and let it fall limp before going in. It’s how I had introduced myself to Joe eight years ago as the newest and bestest paperhanger in town, in spite of my handicap, and he got such a kick out of it he offered me an additional five percent trade discount if I’d continue the ruse to amaze his customers. Having both a good sense of humor and a good sense of hunger, I accepted.
“Hey, One-Arm! Still hanging in there?” Joe yelled as I came through the door, throwing attention on me. I waved my good arm to him. Out of earshot from me he’d be explaining to everyone that I was a one-arm paperhanger shopping for supplies. The only one he ever knew of. People’s eyes would follow me around and whispers would be traded.
I worked my way over to the counter where customers parted for me. A kid with glasses gawked with every move of mine and brashly called out.
“Hey, mister. You really got only one arm?”
“Something like that,” I responded.
“How do you hang wallpaper with only one arm?”
I took my time in replying. Joe’s heard this one a thousand times. “I use my chin more than most.”
The kid looked skeptical and half the adults were catching on. Then the kid says, “Adolph Hitler was a wallpaper hanger. Look where he ended up.”
I debated answering for a few seconds, then leaned close to him. “That’s why I always say,” and I looked around mischievously, then square into his eyes, “next time - no more Mr. Nice Guy.” Then I winked. He took a step closer to his mom.
The crowd gradually thinned down and I struck up a conversation with Joe.
“You used to know Artist George, right Joe?”
“For twenty-five years. He was one of the best.”
I had to agree. I’ve seen enough of his work to judge it well.
“I just came across some of his sketches all the way down in Bristol. At the Roster estate.”
“Oh, I remember that job,” Joe went on, “He did the whole place. They wouldn’t have anyone but him. You doing it all over?”
“No, maybe half the place.” And I hope I survive, I thought. “What ever became of George?”
“Don’t know. No one does. He just disappeared.”
I could hear an alarm going off. I never even dreamed of hearing that answer. Joe went on.
“Must’a been twenty years ago. Oh, even more. Right about the time that beauty queen took off. She grabbed all the headlines, so some people never noticed the reports about old George. But most of us around here were far more concerned about him than that girl.”
I looked at him in shock. This was getting weirder all the time.
“Come to think of it,” Joe continued, “I think he was on the Roster job at the time. Or he had just finished.”
I had no idea what I had stumbled into, but there was definitely something here.
“He had a wife, right? Ruth, was it?” I asked.
“Peach of a girl,” Joe said. “Quite a bit younger, but she started to learn the trade with him. Used to work with George two or three days a week.
That was before girls were seen in the trades very much.”
“Whatever became of her? She didn’t disappear too, did she?”
“No, no.” Joe was pretty emphatic. “No, she just managed to go on somehow. Became a legal secretary or something. Makes gads of money I hear. She even remarried in spite of her claims that she hates men.” Joe chuckled at the thought.
I took it all in without much reaction. Then it occurred that if she remarried, I must have found a different Ruth Bridgeman in the phone book.
“I thought I saw a Ruth Bridgeman in a Taunton phone book, but it must be someone else then.”
“No,” Joe said, “that’s her. Never changed her last name. I guess it was bad enough she felt the need to marry again, didn’t see no need to advertise it.” He got a kick out of that.
“The reason I’m asking is that I’d like to talk with her. Professional talk. Questions about George’s technique, you know?”
Joe nodded his understanding, which surprised me. I thought it was a stupid excuse the moment it came out. Since he was so agreeable, I asked to use his phone and I hooked right up with Mrs. Bridgeman. Though surprised, she had no problem with seeing me but it would have to wait until she got back from eating. She was going out to Providence Place for dinner. I guess she did make gads of money. She said she’d be back by eight, but she goes to bed at nine sharp. There was enough of a tone that I knew not to mess with being late.
“Thanks Joe,” I said, “she seems quite the lady. And the lady will see me tonight.” I gathered my things and hobbled out using one arm the best I could. Joe called out after me.
“Keep up the one-armed act,” Joe called out, “and you just may get her to open up.”
I waved it off and almost lost the load I was balancing in my “good” arm. I couldn’t help but wonder if the five percent was worth this charade.
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