It began with a sobbing phone call from my daughter, the kind of call every parent dreads. All I made out was that something terrible had happened; she was terrified, would never get over it. It was all my fault.
Chris is fifteen. Pretty much everything is all my fault, and yet—and yet—her voice told me it was more than teenage hysterics. Maybe.
With my heart in my mouth—oh, yes, some of those old clichés are dead accurate—I slapped a note on my desk to say I was out for the afternoon, ran out of the museum where I was an intern, and hustled across downtown Brooklyn at an undignified half-run. I was in and out of the subway and running up the stairs to my house less than half an hour from the moment the phone rang.
“Oh, mommy.” She flew from the back room and threw herself into my arms.
Well, I thought. She hasn’t done that in years.
“What’s wrong?” I used my best time-to-stop-the-hysterics mom voice.
The contractor who is renovating my house appeared behind Chris.
“Come on.” He patted her curly hair. “You know you’re all right. Here’s your soda. Drink up now. No one can drink and cry at the same time.”
She shook her head, hard, without lifting it off my shoulder. Meeting my eyes over the back of her head, he said calmly,
“Erica, we do have a problem.”
Joe, my friend, my biking buddy, my contractor, is big, dark, deliberate. He’s always calm. He says I will be too, when I get another decade down the road. I tell him not to treat me like a kid sister, and that he’s learned to be cool because it was necessary to his work. He has to be calm, dealing as he does with stressed-out homeowners in the throes of expensive, complicated renovations of century-old houses.
I sat down on a drop cloth-covered sofa, Chris in my lap. In the tiny part of my mind not crazed with anxiety I wondered when was the last time she’d let me hold her like this?
“We do have a problem,” he repeated. “Chris, do you want to tell or should I?”
As his quiet voice got through to Chris, the sobbing subsided. “If someone doesn’t tell me something, right now, I’ll be hysterical myself,” I said.
A muffled moan came from my shoulder. “We found something today when we broke through that wall.” Joe pointed to broken plasterboard, and behind it, what looked like a long-hidden, crumbling fireplace.
Chris shuddered, as she whispered, “It was awful.” “Damn it, Joe!”
“All right, Erica. Brace yourself. We found some bones behind the wall.”
His seriousness chilled me. “I don’t understand. Mouse bones?
That’s what this is all about?”
He shook his head. “Not mouse. It’s human, and Chris found it.” The sobbing on my shoulder renewed its intensity.
“OK.” I took another breath, a little shaky this time. “Let me get this straight. Chris is all right. And you were working on the house, like always, and you were taking down that wall and you…”
“Me!” Chris suddenly sat up. “It was me. I found them. And if you hadn’t made me take this dumb job working for Joe, I never would have. And now I’ll have nightmares forever.” She jumped up from my lap and ran upstairs. I was too stunned to move.
Joe smiled sympathetically. “She’ll get over it, but I have to tell you, it shocked both of us.”
I didn’t want to discuss my daughter’s emotional state, so I turned to something safer. Plain facts.
“Tell me again. I can’t quite take it in. I have heard stories like this, but I never believed any of them.”
“Urban legends, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I’ve heard those tall tales, too, but I know a guy who really did find a skeleton behind the wall in an old house. It was an infant, probably someone’s secret baby, from way back when.”
I shuddered. “And this?”
He hesitated. “I’m no expert, but it’s not a baby, and not so old, I guess.” He saw me turn pale and added quickly, “No, no, it’s not a recent corpse. Only bones. Mostly bones, anyway. But I had to call the police.”
“Of course,” I said, absently, still in shock.
“We ought to leave it alone, not touch it, until the police come.”
“I won’t touch it, but Chris has seen it. You show me too.” He pointed to the jagged hole Chris had smashed in the wall, and gave me his flashlight. I took a deep breath and stuck my head in. It was a walled-over fireplace, all crumbling brick and tile. A musty, sour smell filled the space. Mice, I thought, and yes, the flashlight beam caught a few tiny bones, then a flash of silver.
It was a human body all right, folded up to fit the space, but neatly arranged and partly dressed, and pathetically small. I knew the living person had probably been bigger, that the skeleton tends to collapse. Even in the dim flashlight, I could see there was more there than bones. The body was wearing what was left of a tie-dyed t-shirt, and it was wrapped in the shreds of an Indian print cloth. She, he, it must have been wearing jewelry. The flashes of silver shone from among the wrist and finger bones, and near the head where the ears might have been. The bones of one arm may have been wrapped around a large teddy bear. Neatly arranged along one side of the body were colorful tattered squares, magazines perhaps, and a twisted object made of metal piping.
The sight took a minute to sink in, and when it did, I stopped breathing. I was looking at the remains of someone young enough to hug a teddy bear. Old enough to wear jewelry. I thought of Chris’ room, with her stuffed animals still lined up on her bed, and her vast collection of earrings, and my eyes stung. It was warm and dry in there, Joe was explaining in a voice that seemed to come from very far away. A heat pipe ran behind the back wall and the dry heat preserved a lot.
Yes, I could see that.
“So you can see why I think it’s not that old?” Joe’s voice came from behind me.
I nodded. “Relatively modern stuff. Sort of 1960s, maybe.” “That metal thing is a bong.”
“I never saw one like that.”
“You fill it with water and get a nice, soft smoke.”
My astonishment must have showed in my face, because he said with a dismissive gesture, “Ah well, it was all a long time ago, in my wild youth.”
“Joe.” My voice shaking. “This looks like a burial, doesn’t it?” “Afraid so. Hey, you look kind of pale. Do you need to put your head down on your knees?”
“No, no, I’m OK. It’s not the bones so much. I took an archaeology course. I’ve seen bones. It’s the teddy bear. And the hair. Dear lord, Joe, did you see that? There’s still hair on the skull. This was once a real person, with light hair and a teddy bear.”
“Here, take this. Sugar’s good for shock.”
He handed me Chris’ still cold soda and I touched the icy metal to my face as he gently guided me away from the wall.
“You know,” he went on matter of factly, obviously trying to distract me, “Chris is doing fine on this job. She’s been a lot of help, and she’s really earning her paycheck.”
He went on talking, but I didn’t hear him. This was all my fault, Chris said, and in a way it was true. I had insisted she take this job, and I knew exactly how she felt about it. She made sure of that by leaving a resentful e-mail to her best friend up on the computer screen. Only someone who’d never heard of Freud could think that was an accident.
Joe disappeared into the back of the house, and I paced up and down around the mess in the room, trying to figure things out.
My daughter was upstairs crying, and I didn’t know what to do with her. Or for her. She was so angry, I didn’t know if she would let me near her.
Not so long ago, there would have been no question about what to do. I’ve been a mother since I was twenty, and I was thrilled right from the start. My husband was too. I guess we were too young and dumb to be scared. And all these years after he died, years when it was only Chris and me, we were the best of friends, our own little family of two.
I used to know what to do; I used to have answers. Lately, I only have questions. We aren’t exactly friends these days and we aren’t exactly a happy family.
I decided who was in charge—me —and started up the stairs.
Then the doorbell rang.
There were two young officers in uniform, who looked so much like guys I knew when I was young that it hurt. They identified themselves and politely asked me to take them to the “situation.”
Joe and I stood nearby watching, keeping an eye on them and at the same time curious to see what they would do.
When they poked their heads into the hole in the wall, one of them said, “Holy shit!” then he looked at me and muttered a quick “Sorry.”
“It’s ok. I’ve heard it before.”
“Jeez,” he said to his partner, “it looks like a burial or something.”
“You said it. We’ve got to call detectives in, crime scene, the works.”
The other one nodded. “They’re going to drop their teeth when they hear this one.” He turned to us. “We need to ask you some questions, and we’re gonna tell you not to touch a thing until the experts show up. Got that?”
“I need names, addresses, phone numbers, occupation.” He whipped out a notebook and pen. “So you live here? What were you doing when you found these bones?”
“Mrs. Donato wasn’t here,” Joe said emphatically. “She was at work. I’m her contractor. We started to break down that wall and there it was.”
“So you found it?”
“Not exactly. I was here, but Mrs. Donato’s daughter, who’s working for me, was the one who actually uncovered it.”
“Oh yeah? And where is she? We’ll need to talk to her.” “She’s upstairs, but please,” I begged, “she’s only fifteen and she’s really upset. Can’t you just talk to us?”
“No, ma’m, we can’t.” He smiled. “I have a younger sister. We’ll be nice, don’t worry, but let me get straight on these other questions first. Now, do you own or rent? Anyone else live here, besides you and your daughter? And how long have you been here?”
“Own. Ten years. It’s only us right now. We used to rent out the garden floor, until we started all this construction.”
“And you’re fixing it up now?” He turned to Joe. “And you’re in charge of that?”
I said, “Of course he is. You don’t think we….”
“Nope, not thinking anything, just asking questions about stuff the detectives might want to know. OK, let’s get the young lady down here.”
I hesitated, wanting to argue, then gave in and went to get her. I found her curled up on the top step. She lifted her face from her knees and said, “I can’t. I won’t.”
“There is no choice here. You have to. If you don’t come down, I’m sure they’ll come up to get you. Wouldn’t that be worse?”
She gave me a considering look and went clattering down the stairs.
I followed, braced for more hysteria, but the young cops kept their promise and treated her gently. She described how she broke through the wall with a sledgehammer, and they teased her about not being that strong, and she offered to show them. Standing near the broken wall, looking in again, one of them said to the other, “Tell you something. I think that’s a kid. Not a little kid, but a young girl.”
The second cop said, “You can’t tell all that from bones!” “Yeah, you can. The experts can, anyways. Bet you anything it turns out to be female and young. Ever know a guy with a teddy bear?”
Chris looked ready to cry again, but I knew they were merely being young cops, covering up their discomfort. Either that, or they were jerks. I barely got the words out —“Have a little respect here!” —when the bell rang again.
A crowd filled my steps, men and women, some in plain-clothes, some in uniform. They came in, identified themselves, conferred with the cops already here. We sat in a corner, quiet and out of their way, and they forgot about us. In the blur of their intense activity, I never did figure out exactly who was who. Some were detectives, some maybe from a crime scene unit. They went right to work, carefully enlarging the hole Chris had made, taking pictures, taking samples, bagging up everything they found.
One would say, “Chain bracelet, silver-color,” and the other wrote it down. “Record albums here—Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil. The Doors. Just called The Doors, I guess. Jefferson Airplane. Surrealistic Pillow. Real oldies. I mean, when do you see records at all any more?”
“Man, this is a weird one. I don’t see the head bashed in, we’re not finding bullets here. Sure looks suspicious, but there’s no obvious cause of death.”
Another voice said, “ME’s gonna have a field day with this one.”
Chris covered her ears.
Joe watched what they did, asked and answered questions, but I sat with my daughter, stroking her hair. Then someone handing out the objects gave a low whistle and muttered, “I’ll be damned.” Everyone looked his way as he carefully held up a broken piece of brick and said, “There’s writing on it. RIP. Then it says 9/16/72.
Over Chris’ hidden head, Joe and I stared at each other as one of the cops said, “Not a cover up, a freakin’ burial,” and another said, “Or both.”
Eventually one of the men in plainclothes come to us and double-checked all our answers to the questions of the first cops. He said to Joe, “Joe Greenberg? Office at 533 Bergen? We’ll want to check out your contracting license numbers,” and to me, “Can you verify when you moved here? And where you lived before? We might want that, but it can wait.”
He turned to colleagues and said quietly, “If everything checks out, they’re OK. This situation looks way older than their residence.”
At last, they gently placed the body in a bag and wheeled it out, placed a bright yellow crime scene tape across the hole in the wall and started packing up their equipment. I hadn’t moved from the sofa but looking through the front window I could see a crowd gathered outside, curious neighbors, a few cars stopped to see what was going on.
I heard a familiar voice saying, “I live next door. Just checking to see if everything’s OK with Miz Donato. Anything I can do?” Mr. Pastore, my grandfatherly next door neighbor.
A cop replied, “Yeah, she’s all right. You can come back later.
No one’s coming in right now.”
The plainclothes officer who seemed to be in charge came back to us and said, “We’re going to check out everything you told us, but for now, relax.”
Chris looked up. “Checking us out? Do you possibly think we had anything to do with that….that….those bones?”
He smiled slightly. “No, young lady, we don’t think that, but we have to ask, you know.”
“Well, I do know. My uncle —well, almost uncle—is a retired detective. And he would know better!”
“Oh? What’s his name?”
“Sergeant Rick Malone,” she said proudly.
“Could be I’ve met him. Now, listen.” He glanced sternly from me to Chris to Joe. “No one, and I mean no one, touches anything! That’s what the tape is for, to keep everyone away. Don’t even touch the tape! Don’t even work near there. Don’t even think about it. Got that?”
“Good.” He looked up to see his crew gathered at the door. “Here’s my card, in case you need to get in touch. I’m Russo. I’ll be in touch with you, if we need anything else. That’s it for now.” And they were gone at last. Chris, Joe, and I stared at each other. Then Chris stood, said, “This is too gruesome!” and disappeared upstairs.