When I spot Trudy Darby at the top of the stairs to The Mermaid’s Tail, I can tell she’s worried about something. I’ve known her since she was sixteen.
“Good afternoon, Fred,” she says, in a voice loud enough to tell me she’s trying to sound normal.
“Afternoon, Trudy. Afraid you might not open the deck today after that storm last night.”
“That was the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard. And the gustiest wind. But it was still breezy enough this morning to dry up the tables and chairs, so I decided to open it. Just got your regular place set a minute ago.”
“Well, I’m a lot older than you,” I say, sitting down at the first chair under the edge of the canopy—out of the sun but with full view of the river and bay, “but I’d have to say it was the worst squall I’ve ever seen, too. Wind hit 86 and right at high tide. The bay must have been chopped up something fierce. Not a good night for a sail.”
Trudy frowns, then shakes her head. “Dylan is out sailing today. His girlfriend from college is staying with us and he wanted to take her out. I told him it was too windy, but it was the only day he could borrow his friend’s boat.”
“Dylan’s always been a good kid, Trudy, and he knows how to handle a boat. I wouldn’t worry.” That’s easy for me to say—I never had kids. Never learned to sail, neither.
“I try not to, but he’s supposed to start waiting tables at five.” If I didn’t know her so well, I’d swear she was more worried for her waiter than for her son. Trudy forces a smile and continues: “Anyway, that rough water must’ve stirred up the bottom because I bought the first three bushels of local blue-claws this morning. Made crab bisque, crab salad, and crab cakes. How hungry are you?”
“Hungry enough for a bowl of bisque, a plate of salad, and three cakes—no, make that two, I’ve got to cut down some.”
“Coming right up!”
Now I’m accustomed to having Trudy not just prepare and serve dinner, but sit with me while I eat it. I come in around four every afternoon before the dinner crowd. I’m usually the only one here so we have a chance to chat, and she watches my reaction to her special of the day. Her cooking is outstanding, but it’s her company that I appreciate the most. My wife died three years ago. The worst part is eating alone. When a smiley young slip of a waitress whom I vaguely recognize from somewhere around town sets a basket of bread and bowl of soup on the table, I apparently frighten her with my scowl.
“Sorry,” she mumbles, “Mrs. Darby said to tell you she’ll be up as soon as she can. Her son just got back with his girl friend.” The waitress prances off on a pair of long skinny legs that don’t seem to come together under a blue denim skirt shorter than her apron.
I lift a spoonful of the pale liquid to my mouth. It’s steaming hot but I’m hungry and trying to remember just how good Trudy’s crab bisque tasted last summer, so I blow on it and take a sip. Delicious, really. But too hot. Better sit here quietly for a few minutes and let it cool.
At home I usually read while I’m eating—with a book propped up in front so I don’t have to try to hold it. But I don’t bring any reading matter with me to Trudy’s and there’s nothing here but the menu I already know by heart.
I butter a slice of crusty French bread, dip it into the soup, and bite off a chunk. Delightful. I begin to imagine Dylan with a girl friend. Hard to believe. I remember when he was born. Well, at least they’re back from sailing so Trudy can just worry about the food, the staff, and the weather, things she’s used to worrying about and can therefore take in stride. She was only sixteen when Junior Morgan told me they were in love. Junior was the son of my best friend since first grade. His father and I played baseball and football together, graduated together, bought a boat and started clamming together. I was his best man and he was mine. Then we enlisted in the Army together on July 9, 1950, and went off to Korea. But Gerry never came back. So I became a sort of surrogate father to Junior, and when he announced his engagement to Gertrude Hogarth, I was against it. So was his mother. Gertrude was much too young, and Junior was planning to open a business. The last thing he needed was a wife and kids to tie him down. But young Gertrude was so determined to be a good wife, a real life-partner for Junior, that she won us both over.
The state had shut down the clam beds right after we’d enlisted, so I had no job waiting when I got back. But the building boom had started so I became a carpenter. I was helping Junior convert an old ice house to a retail fish market, and Gertrude pitched right in. She learned fast and wasn’t afraid of hard work. Before long she could swing a harder hammer and saw a straighter line than Junior. She was a little too beefy to appeal to most men, but I thought she was pleasant to look at. Still do. Doris was born less than a year after they were married and Dylan two years after that.
“How’s the crab bisque?” comes a high-pitched voice from the top of the stairs that almost makes me spill the last spoonful. “Mrs. Darby wants to know.”
This girl needs a little more training. I see a hand-written tag that identifies her as Debby. Well, maybe it’s Debby’s first day. Give her credit for getting a job instead of loafing on the beach like other kids her age. “The crab bisque is absolutely delicious, tell her. Best I ever had.”
Debby picks up the empty bowl and plate, then places a huge oval platter of crab salad in front of me. “More bread, Mr. Wilmont?”
She’s certainly learning fast. “No, thanks, but I’d like some water.”
“Right away, sir.” And off she skitters to the service counter and back with a nice tall glass of water over ice cubes.
I take a swig and then dig my fork into a chunk of white crab meat, followed by a piece of avocado and some lettuce. Trudy makes one fine salad. I don’t know what she puts in the dressing, but I’ve never tasted anything like it any other place.
Over the years Junior and Gertrude worked long hours together and built a good business, and things were going along just about right when Junior let some jerks he knew from high school talk him into drinking his first glass of beer. You see, he’d been raised real strict by his mother. Nobody in her family ever touched a drop. And that was all it took. Twenty-eight years old and so drunk from one glass of beer that he rammed their brand-new station wagon into a utility pole and killed himself.
That was when Gertrude showed what she was made of. She took over the business, hired Ma Morgan to help, and served as mother and father to those two kids. She drove herself so hard I didn’t think she’d last, but it only made her stronger. Two years after Junior’s death she hired Jake Darby to manage the retail end and she started cooking take-out. Jake had been a charter skipper who’d just lost his boat to the bank, and the busybodies around town said he was a loser who couldn’t be trusted. But they were wrong. The take-out business grew and the next year Jake added on a dining room and new kitchen. Folks began calling Gertrude “Trudy” and she seemed to like it—made her seem younger, she told me. Jake was seven years younger than Trudy and only eleven years older than Doris, and the busybodies thought she was asking for trouble, but it didn’t seem to bother any of the Morgans when Jake and Trudy got married—not even Ma who lent them the cash to build The Mermaid’s Tail up on the roof. I got them the lumber at contractor’s rate and helped with the framing.
This time I hear footsteps coming up the stairs so I know it’s finally Trudy, and I’m glad. I don’t like to eat alone. “How’s everything so far?” she asks.
“Delicious as ever, but I missed your company.” Trudy moves my not-quite-finished salad off to the left to make room for the main course—two big breaded crab cakes garnished with sliced tomato and cole slaw. Nobody makes cole slaw like Trudy. Tastes like spiced, dressed cabbage rather than mayonnaise. Then she sets down two glasses of chilled white wine and takes the seat across the table from me. She has no liquor license and, as far as I know, I’m the only one she ever serves complimentary wine to and it’s probably the only drinking that she does, but it’s become part of our ritual. I’m glad she didn’t forget.
“Sorry to leave you alone for so long, Fred, but something came up with Dylan.”
She’ll tell me what it is if she wants to. I don’t like to ask ’cause it might be none of my concern. “Family comes first,” I declare. “This business is hard enough on family, so you’ve got to take what time you can get.”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong, really, though Kara was a little, uh, over-excited.”
“His girlfriend from college?”
“Yeah. It seems they sailed out to Skeleton Island and he was showing her all around.”
“I guess every kid in town has explored Skeleton Island looking for Captain Kidd’s treasure. I know I did many years ago.”
“So did I. But the thing is—oh, I don’t want to ruin your dinner….”
“Nothing could ruin this delicious dinner.”
“Well—they found a skeleton.”
“They said there was a big area behind the dunes that was all eroded from the squall. There were things Dylan had never seen before that must have been covered by sand for years. He was trying to take it all in when he spotted a human skull.”
“Then they brushed away more sand and found some vertebrae and a pair of collarbones.”
“Sounds like it might have some archaeological significance.”
“Kara’s a criminal justice major. She had Dylan radio the Marine Police and they waited till a patrol boat arrived. They were afraid some kids might disturb the scene and destroy evidence.”
“Kara said the skull and three vertebrae looked like they had been fractured. She thinks there might have been a murder.”
“Did you read about Dylan in this morning’s Register?” Trudy asks as she seats me at my usual table and then, to my surprise, sits down herself instead of taking my order.
“Of course. Good picture of him. But the story was pretty sketchy. It said the state and local police were investigating reports of missing persons over the years, but it didn’t mention the fractured skull.”
“Well, we only have Kara’s word on that, and she’s only a student, not a professional. Maybe the police didn’t agree.”
“Or maybe the reporter didn’t ask so they kept it to themselves. He did make a big deal about finding a skeleton on Skeleton Island—as if that meant anything.”
Trudy looks over my shoulder and I sense the presence of someone else on the deck, someone who walks noiselessly. “Good afternoon, Mr. Wilmont,” says Debby, handing me a menu. Today she’s wearing khaki Bermudas which come almost to her knees. The name tag is still handwritten, so I guess she’s still on trial.
“You don’t mind, I hope, Fred,” says Trudy. “I wanted Debby to practice a little more before the dinner crowd. This will be her first night without either Doris or Dylan watching out for her. Go ahead, Debby, just pretend I’m not here.”
I’m glad I’m not in Debby’s running shoes. Trudy can be one tough boss. This is probably the final exam. “Of course I don’t mind,” I say to both. “I’m sure Debby will make a fine waitress.
She was very good last night.” I smile at Debby, hoping to put her at ease.
She smiles back and begins her recitation: “Tonight’s special dinner includes she-crab soup, Crab Louis—that’s crab meat served on a bed of lettuce with tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and black olives topped with our special dressing—and, for the main course, fettuccine with red crab sauce. I’ll be back in a minute to take your order. Would you like a glass of water?”
“Yes, thank you,” I say, “and I’ll take the special.”
Debby goes off for the water and I say to Trudy, “You did a good job training her. That was a lot to say at one time.”
“You should have asked her what’s in the special dressing. She would have been prepared to name all eight ingredients. But she forgot to tell you one thing.”
“Real she-crab soup is made from female crabs with roe. But we don’t catch them anymore. At least, I won’t buy any. I use chopped up hard-boiled eggs.”
“And Debby was supposed to explain that?”
“To keep conservationists from getting alarmed.”
After Debby brings my water and heads down to the kitchen, Trudy says, “Dylan and Kara are at the police station. It seems Kara’s quite curious about the investigation and wants to help. Dylan says she just finished a course in forensic testing and I guess she impressed the local cops with her theories.”
“I suppose murder is a possibility,” I say. “I’ve seen enough mysteries on television to know that there’s always the problem of what to do with the body. Burying it on an uninhabited island seems pretty shrewd.”
“But kids around here are always digging for buried treasure.”
“Yes, but kids don’t dig very deep. I never did.”
“Has there ever been anyone reported missing in Waterwitch?”
“Only one that I know of. That was Charley Ball back in 1942. He was big, brutal, and rotten to the core, not one streak of good in him. He was a clammer. One day his boat floated up on the beach. His rake and gear were in it but no Charley. Nobody ever saw him again. The cops investigated and decided he had fallen out of the boat and drowned. For months they expected someone to find his body floating somewhere, but it never turned up. The whole town felt relieved. I know I was. Funny, I haven’t thought about him in years.”
“He didn’t have any friends or family?”
“He had a wife and son. Everybody felt sorry for them ’cause he was always getting drunk and beating them up. I hate to say this, but I’m sure the wife knew they were both better off without him. Charley Ball was the meanest son of a bitch I ever knew. Pardon my language.”
“I guess I’ve led a pretty sheltered life. I can’t imagine how a man could do such things.”
“That wasn’t all. Whenever he was too hung over to get out in his boat and dig clams, he’d beat up some kid and steal them instead.”
Trudy just shakes her head and stares at me in disbelief. I feel compelled to explain more. “I was ten when I started digging. Half the kids in town did it. We were too young to get licenses, so we’d sell for half price to a real clammer. It was the way most guys broke into the business, sort of like an unofficial apprenticeship. It was against the law, of course, but everybody kept their mouths shut. Believe me, our mothers needed whatever we could earn to put food on the table in those days.”
Trudy’s normally red face suddenly loses all its color. “Do you think some of the other men in town might have ganged up on him? Could it be his skeleton Dylan found?”
“I suppose it’s possible, but here comes my soup, so let’s change the subject.”
The next day I get a strange call from Jack Spencer, a retired plumber I did some work with over the years. He says he heard from his wife who was buying shrimp at the Mermaid that I have some ideas about the skeleton. We agree how fast word travels in a small town, and then he asks if he can stop by and talk about it.
“Sure,” I answer, wondering what he could possibly know and who else Trudy has gabbed to. Jack’s about five years older than me, but he never hung around the docks. His father owned the old Waterwitch Hotel up on the hill.
“Morning, Jack,” I call from my front porch rocker as he heads up my walk. “How’s retirement treating you?”
“Okay, I guess, except that I’m starting to get fat. I still eat the same as I did all those years of hard work. How about you?”
I get up to open the screen door, then wave him toward the other rocker and we take our seats. “I try to work about two or three mornings a week now—strictly for cash, though. Can’t let Uncle Sam know everything.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Curtis slips me some whenever I help him out on a job.” Curtis Forman was his partner for over forty years and refuses to retire.
“Care for a cold one?”
“Better not,” Jack says, patting his belly, “But have one yourself, don’t let me stop you.”
“Think maybe I’ll wait till lunch.” Silence follows, as we watch the cars pass by, until I finally ask, “So what’s on your mind, Jack?”
Jack purses his lips, takes a breath, nods his head, and finally opens his mouth to speak. “When I heard about this guy Charley Ball, the name rang a bell but I couldn’t place him at first. Then I remembered getting a letter from my father when I was on a sub-chaser in the North Atlantic. He always tried to keep me informed on what was going on in town, bad news as well as good, and that was it. He wrote me that some clammer named Charley Ball had disappeared, his boat washed ashore a few days later, and he was presumed drowned. But Trudy told my wife that you thought he was such a rotten bastard that some of the other guys might have killed him and buried his body.”
“Actually, Jack, it was Trudy who asked if that could have happened. I just said it was a possibility, that’s all. I doubt if anyone will ever figure it out for sure.”
“Have you seen this morning’s paper?”
“No, I decided to put off my shopping when you called. Is there anything new?”
“Yeah. I wish I had brought it with me, but I remember exactly what it said. It seems they did some forensic tests which show the skeleton belonged to a tall left-handed male in his mid-twenties who’d been dead between 50 and 70 years.”
“I wonder how they can tell things like that.” I hear myself stalling for time. The details fit exactly.
“That’s what my wife asked. But that girlfriend of Trudy’s son, she said they measure the percentage of nitrogen in the bones, the size of the pelvis, and how much the bones have fused.
That kid really knows her stuff! So, Fred, does any of this help? I mean, everybody I’ve talked with thinks you should tell the police what you suspect. It might be a big help, and then they can get on with the business of keeping order in town this summer.”
“Charley Ball was a big guy and I remember being punched senseless by his left fist. The first time he threw one at me I thought he was making a mistake leading with his right, but when the left followed, it was all over. I was on the ground too stunned to roll away from his kicks. I thought he was gonna kill me.”
“How old were you?”
“Twelve. The second time I was a year older and smart enough to duck the first punch and strong enough to take three right-left combinations before I went down. Haven’t thought about it for years, but I still remember those punches. Maybe I will go have a talk with the Chief.”
“Maybe I’ll go with you. There’s something else I remember.”
“I didn’t know Charley Ball, so I certainly didn’t know his boat. But the night before I shipped out I saw something very strange. Curtis and I had been doing a little celebrating. I was walking home from his house over in the flats and decided to have one last look at the harbor—and to give myself a little more time to sober up before I got home, because I knew my mother would be waiting. It was around one in the morning, real still, and I just stood there for a few minutes, looking at all the boats in the moonlight, thinking what a pretty scene it was, hoping I’d make it through the War and get back. Then I heard the sounds of someone rowing, real hard like they must’ve been tired. I could tell the tide was running out fast.”
“Did you see anybody?”
“Yeah, and it scared me a little. It looked like a woman rowing the boat, wearing a dress that was all torn down the back. When she finally made it to the floating dock, she stood up and turned around. She was big—not just fat, but big all over. She had a pretty enough face—if the rest of her just hadn’t been that big. But the thing is, it wasn’t a woman. She was a kid, barely a teenager. She looked terrified, almost in shock. I wanted to go and comfort her but was afraid to make things worse. Then, when she was out of the boat, she just pushed it away from the dock. She waited till it was caught up in the current and walked away. It was really something.”
“You didn’t tell anyone?”
“No. My mother would have thought I was drunk and made a scene, and with me shipping out the next day I didn’t want that. By morning I had a bad hangover and began to think I imagined it, I mean, it was just too unreal. I never saw a girl that was so big. So I didn’t even tell Curtis. I didn’t even think about it till I got the letter from my father about Charley Ball’s boat washing up. Then I wondered if I had seen the girl and if she had anything to do with his death. But we saw so much action the next few months that I sort of forgot about it.” Jack shakes his head and adds, “Now that I’ve said it out loud, it sounds pretty far-fetched. What do you think, Fred, should I tell the police?”
I know my gut answer to Jack’s question is no, yet I’ve got to be careful not to make him suspicious. We’re not close friends but I always respected him as an honest man and don’t want to lie to him. And I don’t want to ask him to lie for me.
“Well,” I begin, “let’s consider the possibilities, even if they seem far-fetched, and see where they lead us. If this girl you think you saw that night really killed Charley Ball and buried his body on Skeleton Island, what would her motive have been?”
“I don’t know. He must have done something terrible to her.”
“You said her dress was ripped?”
“Yeah, it was a mess.”
“And she looked terrified?”
“That’s right. Scared to death.”
“What was a thirteen-year-old girl doing with a twenty-seven-year-old married man?”
“Unless he forced her. He was a brute of a man. Like a bull out of control. Nobody in this town could have taken him in a fight, certainly no girl.”
“So what do you think happened?”
“This is only a guess, but suppose he lured her onto his boat somehow, rowed to the island and raped her. After, when the guy is laying there, this big girl smashes his skull open with a rock or a big stick. She buries the body in the sand and covers it with debris. She rows back against the current and sets the boat adrift so people would come to the conclusion that they did.”
“You know, Fred, it could’ve happened that way. But if the girl really killed the brute, wouldn’t she have been treated like a hero?”
“Maybe not. Think of the shame the girl would have felt. That was 1942. Even nowadays, lots of people still punish the rape victim. A guy I hired for a job two years ago told me there’s no such thing as rape, that a woman always wants it in the end. Can you imagine that kind of thinking?”
Jack shakes his head. “This is all just guesswork, you know.”
“Right, so my question to you is this: If you take your story to the police, what good could possibly come of it?”
“Don’t know, really. Maybe none at all.”
“Suppose the girl grew up in this town and is still living here. Do you think she’d want the story to come out after all these years?”
“Don’t take this next thing wrong, Jack, just think about it. Suppose it had happened to your wife when she was thirteen and she was able to keep folks from finding out. Would she want the so-called truth known now? I’ll tell you something else. If it had happened to my Irene, I wouldn’t want the whole town making up gory details when she’s not even here to explain her side.”
“Okay, Fred, I’ll try to pretend it never happened. To be honest, I’m not a hundred percent certain it did.” He stood up to go, smiling easier now, relieved.
“I’ll tell the Chief what I remember and suspect. Somebody killed and buried Charley Ball, and anybody in this town who remembers him will agree he got what he deserved, believe me.”
“Have a good one.”
“Same to you.”
Sometimes it’s better not to tell all you know. I went all through grade school with a big pretty-faced girl who was thirteen in 1942. I remember always feeling sorry for Mary Womble ’cause of the way the other kids made fun of her for being so big. She probably could have beaten all of us up but was too shy to think about it. And the teachers never asked her any questions or made her go to the chalkboard. I always wondered why. Once I asked her and she looked at me and smiled sweetly and told me she was too “slow”—that was the word she said the principal used, and I guess the teachers and all the kids including Mary believed him. Mary seemed to believe everything everybody said. She could never tell when kids were exaggerating or just plain lying. Sometimes it was funny, like the day in fourth grade when one of the girls told the others it was gonna rain the next day when we all knew it wouldn’t, and Mary came to school wearing rubbers and a yellow slicker. But other times it wasn’t funny. In fact, most of the kids were downright mean to Mary.
Day after day, year after year, Mary sat in a daze, ignored by the teachers, teased by the kids, alone in her own world, just growing. She had always been taller and heavier than everybody else, but by seventh grade she also had developed breasts that could no longer be concealed within the tent-like dresses she used to wear. The boys called her “moo-moo-Mary.”
The first day Mary was absent was the day Charley Ball’s empty boat was found. She was absent for a week. After her return she was even more withdrawn, more in a daze, never smiled. But kids stopped being mean to her. It was like we had all suddenly been made conscious of the finality of death. Not that we weren’t familiar with death. Nearly everyone knew the soldiers and sailors in town who’d been killed in the War. But war meant death. Charley Ball used to terrorize us; he was invincible. Now he was dead and he had not died in the War; he had died right here in our bay where we’d all been swimming and rowing boats all our lives. If Charley Ball could fall out of a boat and drown, so could we.
So we stopped picking on Mary Womble, allowed her to live in her own world. After a while we noticed that she had stopped growing. In fact, as first some boys and later a few girls grew taller, Mary seemed to shrink. She dropped out in tenth grade after failing everything and I never saw her again. So what I told Jack was true enough. Whether Mary Womble’s alive or dead, it just wouldn’t do any good to splash her name all over the newspaper. If she killed Charley Ball, she did us all a favor. And if she was smart enough to get away with it for sixty years, she got her revenge against a society that labeled her too “slow” to learn.
Profile: Ken Siben