A Foul, Disgusting Monster
Too Quiet in Brooklyn is the first in an eight-book series. It stars Fina Fitzgibbons—now in her late twenties, for we mortals who keep score. In later books, she is married; she and her husband have twins and the family lives in an old brownstone on John Street in Vinegar Hill, a Brooklyn neighborhood not too far from the Heights but closer to DUMBO and the East River. Walk around on its cobbled streets and you might meet a friendly ghost, perhaps the captain of a three-masted schooner or a blacksmith or banker.
In this scene from Too Quiet in Brooklyn, Fina interviews a friend of the novel’s victim.
Early the next day before we set our for New Jersey, I rang Mrs. Daligan’s bell. Let Jane interview the Hectors of the case. Maybe he’d give her solid information like a license plate number or be able to identify Arrowsmith as one of the handymen he’d seen on College Place. But I needed to wrap my mind around Mary Ward Simon, the person. I remember my grandmother telling me that murder doesn’t happen all at once. That’s what her mother told her, the ancestor with my surname. It’s slow to start, happens way back in a person’s history, simmers before it pounces; it does an ugly slow burn; it’s a festering sore. And I wanted to get to know the woman, her past, her reactions, so I’d be motivated in my bones to focus on finding her killer. That’s why I saved talking to Phoebe Daligan for myself. Because Phoebe Daligan was Mary Ward Simon’s friend, a friend from way back in the day.
“I can’t believe she’s gone. This morning I looked on my calendar. ‘Call Mary’ was written in today’s square. I relied so much on her, and through the years we’d become real friends.”
We sat in the parlor of her brownstone with high ceilings and crystal chandeliers, a view overlooking the Promenade and Manhattan’s skyline, the green lady in the near distance, you name it. “How long had you known Mrs. Simon?”
“Mary? We go way back, way back. Let’s see, my husband and I moved here in 1966, newlyweds, and shortly after that the Simons moved next door. I’d say we weren’t even here a year—yes, must have been, because Lyndon Johnson was still president. I can remember the protests we used to have on the Promenade, looking right out that window. I used to be so scared sometimes.”
This was all ancient history to me, but the neighbor, Mrs. Phoebe Daligan, got a misty-eyed, dazed look and left me just a little, so I let her talk when she was around and made allowances for her when she departed ever so slightly. I knew she’d return. Pencil thin, she wore a bright red cardigan sweater and a white silk blouse underneath. Pearls. Navy blue slacks. Probably lined. Dark red penny loafers, blue and red argyles, and a diamond on her ring finger that didn’t quit. Makeup perfect by seven in the morning. You know the look—Anglican, Mom called it. How can you tell? I asked her once, and she’d just smile and say something like, wait until you’re my age, you’ll be able to tell whether a computer is Republican or Democrat.
But I took it slow and kept my mouth shut, remembering that the woman learned a few hours ago of her friend’s death. More than a neighborhood friend, I think, more like a dear friend. They’d been through a lot together, the antiwar years, husbands in the military about the same time, came back from Vietnam silent and vague and in need of therapy or maybe detox, but worked it off instead. They grew into their businesses about the same time, watched their children get schooled and marry, stood by each other during the desolated loss of their husbands to sudden coronaries, somehow grew up themselves, and of course held the horror of 9/11 together. She probably could see the twin towers collapsing out her picture window. But Phoebe Daligan wore her grief well, her lifted complexion giving little away. I could tell she’d been crying, though, the loss beginning to show below the eyes, the thin, blue-gray pallor a giveaway.
“We chaired the Women’s Christian Ministry of Care. She was the chair last year and I’m it this year, and I needed her advice about one of my fund-raising ideas. Now I’ll not get it.”
She stopped talking, but I didn’t say anything, just nodded.
“Not that she was the fund-raising type. Shy, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a finely tuned, well-organized mind. She cooked dinner like she crunched numbers, she used to say.”
“You can tell by the way she kept her house,” I said, making small talk and wishing I hadn’t interrupted because there was a lull, because the woman’s well ran dry or her spirit flitted away again, at least for a moment or two. She looked around the room with appraising eyes, saw a crystal bowl out of place and adjusted it.
“Nothing out of order in her house, just like yours. Not a mote of dust. A place for everything,”I said, repeating myself but hoping to stoke the fire.
“And yet she was human. Fell to pieces when her husband died a few years ago. She took to drinking too much. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Mary Ward Simon, a lush? Course, I think I was the only one who knew. She hid it well.”
I nodded, scribbling, keeping my head down.
“But you don’t blame her, not with that daughter. She told me after Mel died, her world of perfect upper-middle-class family, of carefully contrived numbers, of spotless rooms artfully decorated in simple but pleasing tones—her words, mind—her world tumbled into the slime of landfills.”
I wondered if she’d seen the transformation of the Fresh Kills landfill, but I kept my mouth shut and let her continue.
“And her daughter didn’t help. No love for her mother, none at all. Had a mind of her own, even as a baby. Those were the desolate years for her—her words—the late nineties. Little wonder. We didn’t see much of her after Mel died; we were a couple and she wasn’t, and you know how that is.”
I didn’t have a clue, but I nodded, all sympathetic, keeping my jaws clamped and letting the fires of her memory stoke themselves. I’d struck a little piece of gold, about the drinking,I mean. It was a chink in the dead woman’s armor. It made her human. Well, at least more like me. Not so much the drinking, but the flaw. I scribbled what Phoebe Daligan had said, my writing hand beginning to cramp. One of these days I’ll get a digital recorder, but they’re so off-putting, so inhuman, I just haven’t done it. Besides, I think my brain doesn’t function without a pen.
“She said she came home from Mel’s funeral and wrapped herself around a bottle of scotch and stayed there for a year. Working at the time, too. I don’t know how she pulled herself out of it, but I’ve learned a thing or two about grief, not that I understand it, mind, or like it. I hate it; it’s a foul, disgusting monster that takes, takes, takes. But it has its masks. I found that out a couple of years after Mary did when my husband died and I had to get more involved in the church. You see, I don’t have children and I’ve never worked, never had to, and now I’ve lost a true friend. I put too much of myself into that friendship and damned if she didn’t leave me.”
Photos: cover, Too Quiet in Brooklyn. Design, Avalon Graphics.
Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Wikipedia Commons.