Life in FictionMCatherine Berg / Mystery & Detective
Life in Fiction
M. Catherine Berg
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M. Catherine Berg
Copyright July 2012 by M.Catherine Berg
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I would like to thank author Tina Gayle for her patience and for sharing generously her knowledge, time and experience; Mindy Meserve for her tireless reading, edits and contributions; S.M.R. Saia, author, niece (and mother of the one-and-only Phoebe) for taking time to read various manuscripts throughout the years, Kenneth Rogowski for answering his phone even when he knows it's me calling with endless computer questions; Mary Rosenblum for her encouragement; Carolyn, Kent, Joey and Beth for their support; author John Locke for lighting the fire; and my husband for his constant encouragement and love.
LIFE IN FICTION
Jimmy Slade was physically alive but spiritually dead. That was my observation as I approached him in the neighborhood hangout, The Shady Oyster. His thin body, slouched on the wooden barstool, looked sick and frail. With severe skepticism, I’d agreed to meet him for a happy hour drink. I slipped onto the empty stool beside him.
“I want to hire you, Gracie.” Jimmy didn’t look at me or acknowledge I had arrived. “To find out who killed my boy.” His shaky gnarled fingers, a brownish-yellow stain from decades of cigarette smoking, clutched his near-empty beer bottle. The backs of his hands, dappled with liver spots, reflected age hastened by grief.
The bartender, his exposed flesh loaded-up with colorful tattoos and prison pumped arms, placed a small white paper coaster in front of me. His deadpan face and eyes waited for a response from me to his unspoken communication.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” I said.
The black ink teardrop under his left eye crinkled with the nod of his head. He turned away to retrieve my beer.
“I want you to prove your momma wrong,” Jimmy said. He twisted toward me. The slight movement triggered a coughing spasm that ended with a clearing of phlegm in his throat. Nice. His breath reeked of beer mingled with something sweet. As the spasm episode subsided his brown eyes focused on me. They were bitter and darker than I remembered and resembled hollow tree knots at dusk. I met his gaze and didn’t blink.
“Jimmy,” I said. “A long time ago the police classified Junior’s death as an accident. You need to accept that. My mother’s book was make-believe. Fiction.”
“Your momma ruined my life.”
“No,” I said. “You ruined your own life.”
His fixation with my mother, Lillian Wentworth, and her book loosely based on the events of his son’s death, ended with the loving father fingered as the twisted killer of his own son. It was the book that propelled her to the number one slot on the best seller list. Although the story’s location had been changed and the characters exaggerated with much sex and drama, the small beach community of Buena Del Mar put it together. The town condemned Jimmy thinking he had gotten away with murder. His wife left him. His job faltered, eventually ended, and he became the local outcast.
We sat silent, surrounded by country music blustering from the jukebox. Jimmy reached in his front shirt pocket and pulled out a Tootsie Roll.
“Want one?” He set the chewy candy down in front of me.
I shook my head and reached for the peanuts instead.
“I’m addicted to them,” he said. “Beer and Tootsie’s.”
I nodded. Behind me, the male dominated crowd punctuated their end-of-the-day tales with backslapping and laughter. The bartender set down my beer minus the glass. I wiped off the bottle top.
“No one believes the police,” Jimmy said. “They all believe your momma.”
His head started to bob low over his chest. A lock of greasy hair flopped on his forehead. “You owe me.”
“I don’t owe you crap.” I cracked the peanut shell and tossed the inner nugget into my mouth. I followed the tasty morsel with a chug of beer and let the bitter taste of misplaced guilt aggravate the cranky mood descending upon me.
“Why now Jimmy?” I asked. “It’s been eighteen years and now you start pursuing this?”
“I’m sick. I’m not long for this world. Before I go I want people to know the truth,” he said. “They’ll believe you.” His shoulders slumped. The tragedy had more than taken its toll on Jimmy Slade. His facial skin resembled fractured glass, the unbreakable kind automobile manufacturers use. Broken capillaries threaded their way along the tiny cracks. He was a mess.
I stared at him.
“Look, Jimmy,” I said. “I’m just a simple PI. I make my living following cheating spouses and people in wheelchairs that climb up on ladders to trim their garden trees on weekends.” On impulse, I touched his bony arm. “I’m not sure I’m your girl.”
The truth is I didn’t want to get involved. When people start trying to pit me against my mother or use me to get to her, I draw the line. I’m very sensitive about that. My ex-husband, the closet writer, taught me that hard lesson.
“It’s gotta be you don’t ya’ see?” he asked.
Unfortunately, I did see. He thought me investigating the death my mother had built her writing career and fortune on was going to exonerate him somehow.
“It was a violent death,” Jimmy said and started to get weepy. “My boy’s head was bashed in.”
“By the rocks, Jimmy,” I said. “He slipped and hit his head on the rocks.”
The tears started to slide down his face. One big tear rolled around a deep crevice of his chin like a steel globe in a pinball machine and splattered onto his beer bottle. My resolve to not feel pity started to wane. I squirmed on my barstool.
“You know Jimmy,” I said. “Let me think about it. Can I give you an answer tomorrow?”
As I took a long sip of beer I glanced at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. The harsh light bouncing off my wavy blonde hair and fair skin made my green eyes look hollow like Jimmy’s. Yikes. I set the bottle down. Time to go.
“Here.” I slid the Tootsie Roll back in front of him and patted him on the back. His backbones felt brittle through the thin washed out flannel shirt.
Jimmy Slade twisted the paper off the Tootsie Roll and popped the chewy morsel in his mouth. Turning his entire body toward me, he held out his hand. After a beat of hesitation, I slipped mine into his. He nodded and squeezed my hand with the surprising strength of a body builder.