DRUMS; A Ben Miles Story
by Costa Koutsoutis
I was in Flushing, walking towards the deli, taking a route around the other block, the one on the far side of my house, not really in any sort of hurry to go get a sandwich and a drink. There was no food in the house, which, as a grown man in his thirties house-sitting, should have been a sign that this month wasn’t going to be going my way. I normally didn’t like venturing too far back into Queens these days, the bus service you needed to rely on getting shittier and shittier, it seemed, but Adam and Mal had asked nicely, and I’d known Adam on and off forever. He was one of the few guys outside of work I was friends with, even if I we really only saw each other once or twice a year at backyard cookouts or weddings. Mal I didn’t know, but he seemed nice enough, so whatever, house sit, watch the cat they claimed needed a special diet, enjoy their central air during a hot summer.
There was just the issue of food. Apart from cat food, that is.
I saw it on the other side of the street as I walk walking back, actually, set in the metal-barred, white-painted fence of one of the houses in the middle of the block. I’d gotten a six-pack of root beers, a few sandwiches, and a large bag of no-name chips. That should hold me for a few days I’d thought, when I saw it. A photo in a frame, old and tarnished but taken care of, with dried old flowers stacked around the sidewalk. I crossed over, because hey, why not. The house was just like every other house on the block with the partial metal fence around the front yard, less a barrier and more of a clear line to keep dogs from shitting on lawns. Driveway too, house nice, red brick, two stories, cared for, but obviously not new. The window frames looked at least a dozen years old, the driveway patched. It was, I realized, a legacy, the kind of house that had the same family living in it for years, probably since the seventies when this area was a solid middle-class area full of mostly Irish union members or firefighters, some Greek painters and construction workers, and a smattering of Chinese and Dominican families. Whoever lived here had been here for a while, enough to see Flushing turn over more than a few times.
I looked back at the picture, at the flowers. Whoever she was, smiling and blonde and green-eyed in some kind of dress, maybe, it was hard to tell in the faded image, she’d been young when the picture was taken, maybe forty years ago? It looked like the kind of glamor pictures people took back then at Sears, a group shop and some portraits of each family member to scatter around, you in your holiday or Sunday best, posed smiling, cheerful, full of promise, a reminder of some kind of potential. Underneath the picture written in the frame, engraved, was “Forever In Our Hearts”. The picture frame was attached to the metal bars with wrapped wire punched through the frame, dirty and rusted with time, probably something from someone’s garage. The rust had turned the loops into solid little chunks of solder, it’d been there so long, which explained the tarnish of the metal frame and the fade of the photo.
I heard the creak of metal, the front door opening, and I hustled off, not wanting to look like I was snooping. I turned a corner as soon as I could, not wanting to get caught snooping. A few minutes later I was back at Adam and Mal’s house, planting bags on the kitchen table and pouring out a scoop of cat food for Busty, who meowed at me from her perch on the kitchen counter. She head-butted me when I got closer, and I scratched her behind the ears for a bit before she tried to nip at my hand, leaping down to the floor with a thud. “Fat little fuck,” I murmured to no one, going back to my sandwiches. I scrolled through my phone and clicked on some video a friend sent me of some guy trying to light fireworks and setting his hair on fire, and I laughed, chewing on half of an Italian sub, the vinegar seeping out onto my other hand.
Who was that girl in the picture? You didn’t see much of that in this kind of neighborhood, the shrines to lost family members. There’d briefly been one further up towards one of the bigger boulevards I knew a few years ago, candles and flowers by the curb where some guy had been run over by a hit-and-run crossing the street. Did she die in 9/11? You occasionally saw those around, but no, I thought, cleaning up and laying on the couch in the living room, flicking on the TV for nothing in particular, those are different. It usually tells you they died then, because it’s important to make it stand out, festooned usually with American flags, I thought, scratching my chin.
My phone dinged, and I looked down at the message.
AT WORK AT THE BAR COME BY
I sighed, thinking about it for a minute before I rolled off the couch, clicking off lights and making sure the cat hadn’t gotten up the stairs, something Adam and Mal had been insistent on, and heading out, stuffing my keys, phone, and wallet into my pockets. Alex was another old friend, someone from high school I’d run into recently and started talking to again. She’d invited me by the bar she worked a few times, so fuck it, why not, I thought. I started walking up to the main boulevard, looking back down the one block I’d come up from earlier, where the house with the picture in the fence was, thinking about that girl as the bus pulled up and I got on.
“So how’re Adam and Mal?” Alex asked me as I walked in a little while later, leaning over from behind the bar. “I haven’t seen them in forever.” We’d all briefly been a single group of friends when I first started college, that odd attempt people do when they try to combine their different groups of friends, to mixed results. I played with a coaster, distracted. “OK, I guess, if they’re doing a month off.”
The bar was quiet, a Wednesday night, allowing us a little bit of privacy. We’d chatted about life since the last time we’d seen each other. I was a couple of years into working for myself as a private eye, which she found hilarious, she had a kid she adored, and I’d helped my parents pack up the old house and move to Philadelphia to be closer to some family that lived there from my mom’s side. We were over a decade past high school but not much had changed otherwise, to be completely honest. Still dumb, still hanging out in Queens and thinking about how much it sucked to have to take the N or the 7 train, how the buses never worked, and rent looking like it was going to go up again, probably because of fucking Manhattanites. Alex lived with her kid and her dad in the house she grew up in, he’d had been a fireman and had driven us as kids to parties and concerts, mostly just happy his daughter had friends and that she didn’t hate him, I guess. She still sometimes sang in local bands, and she bartended and co-managed Sunshine Bar & Grill, the place that used to be Deliah’s, the bar we’d always gone to that didn’t ask too many questions about ID when we were teenagers and bored on Saturday nights, drinking overpriced beers and shots of vodka, thinking we were hard.
“Hey, so I was walking back from the deli, you know the one by the park near where I am? They have the sandwiches?”
“The Corona Street, yeah,” she said, drinking from a bottle of water, “that’s by Linda’s house, you remember, Linda Pullman? She was in that cult, had a crush on you? She got married, moved in with Bashir, had some kids.” I did, the cute hippie girl who ended up in some weird Christian revival movement she tried to get various people from school to go to with her. I’d heard she’d OD’ed and left Queens, running across her name randomly during some work a few years back, so good to hear that was wrong. Bash had been the guy we all bought weed and bootleg movies from back then, a weird pairing, but whatever. I pushed the coaster across the bar, “So I’m walking and I see this picture attached to someone’s fence, like, a memorial? It’s got flowers everywhere, it’s like a block up from the Corona? You know what it is?”
“It’s that girl got killed back in like, the seventies,” a voice answered from next to me, an older man nursing a beer, “the Kimball place, right, red brick? That’s where Janet Kimball’s family still lives, girl died back in like, shit,” he looked down, counting on his hand, “I think seventy-three?”
Made sense, I thought, picture looked like it was thirty, almost forty years old in a frame like that, made sense for the house, a family home around since the sixties or seventies in that one spot while Queens slowly changed around them. The conversation started to change, and Alex and I made vague but close-enough plans for me to come by next time she was working and get a late dinner when her shift finished. I walked back towards the house in the dark, no real speed or purpose through the neighborhood, letting my feet and the fact that I was somehow, still sober, taking me where they should. I ended up back at that fence, back at that picture in the metal bars, looking a little better, a little less dirty and forgotten in the dark. There was a light on in the house on the second floor, a flicker blue-white light from a TV. Someone couldn’t sleep. Someone probably didn’t sleep much anymore, probably not since the seventies, especially now realizing that life was getting closer and closer to ending and nothing was going to bring her back.
Shit, maybe I was drunk.
“She was dating Walter Fredericks, his dad owned the one paper mill by where all the subways park now, but back then it was like, mostly just factories. The subway hadn’t expanded that far yet to the water.” My dad’s sister Fiona said, stubbing out her cigarette as we sat on her screened-in porch. I knew where she was talking about, a weird pseudo-industrial area right before the subways dipped underground to go under the river into Manhattan, an area slowly transforming now into an amalgamation of restaurants, condos, and small businesses, all under the shadow of the ConEd and bank high-rises built there forever, clear delineations that you’re at the edge of Queens.
She paused to take a sip of coffee and look at her cellphone, checking the time. “Hot date?” I joked, finishing my coffee. Fiona smiled, “actually, yes, Lucille is coming by to pick me up so we can go visit Donald and his new wife. Anyway,” she continued, “Walter Fredericks ended up owning that factory, his family was very wealthy, back then? That factory employed a lot of people, and everyone knew that he was going to run it, which he did. In the eighties he turned it into a plastic factory, they made plastic flowers, cups, plates there.”
“Anyway, it was in the news, she disappeared one night, big scandal, her parents were on the radio and even the TV about it. Terrible stuff. Walter eventually retired and sold the factory, sold his house, moved to Florida like five years ago.” My gut started to sink as she kept talking and lit another cigarette, “The new owners looked in the basement and found a big drum, like a metal one you’d use for like, sewage from the plant?” Fiona looked at me, leaning forward. “The poor girl was inside, he’d killed her and left her in the basement of his house the whole time because she wouldn’t get an abortion. Terrible, you know? Anyway, they, the police I guess, went down to Florida to interview Walter, but he’d heard what happened, so when they got there he was dead.” She put a finger like a gun to her temple, “He’d killed himself. He was old, I’m sure that he did not want to spent the remainder of his years in jail.” A car pulled up to the curb, honking, and my aunt got up, stubbing her smoke out. “I’ll see you soon? That’s Lucille.”
“Yeah, for sure,” I said, getting up to hug her goodbye, my dad’s weird hippie sister. She left in the car with her friend as I stood on her steps, walking slowly back to the bus to get back to Adam and Mal’s place. The bus left me far enough away that I passed by the Kimball house again on my way back, and I stopped to look at the picture. “I’m sorry,” I said, half-aloud, snapping up in surprise when someone coughed, seeing an older woman unloading groceries from the back of her car, staring at me. Shit.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, louder, walking away, face red as I turned the corner unnecessarily to get out of there and back towards Adam and Mal’s, finally getting there to sit on their front stoop before going in. I thought about the girl in the drum, about the plastic factory by the river, about the old man in Florida finding out from someone’s nephew who told his mom who told her aunt who called him that they’d found something in the basement of his old house, and him immediately thinking of a .22 he kept in the kitchen for home defense, about the cops coming for an old man who’d fucked up real back almost forty years back.
I thought about what house he grew up in, which house was the Fredericks house from back then.
I thought about whether or not Adam and Mal had a large basement, and if somewhere in there in a half-forgotten dusty corner I could find the top of a metal drum tossed aside in a curious moment, trying to see what would have been in the metal container hidden under the basement stairs for all that time.
This one’s for Queens, which is never cool.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Costa Koutsoutis a writer from New York City, where he was born. He used to avoid doing homework when he was a kid so he could read other books and comics hidden in his textbooks, which is a good indicator of him as a person.
Find out more about him and see more of his work at costak.wordpress.com.
A short mystery featuring private eye Ben Miles about New York City, the outer boroughs, old neighborhoods, and the secrets that they tend to hide that aren't necessarily secrets to uncover, but a sad story to respect. Ben might just be house-sitting, but sometimes you can't help but nose around for something that catches your eye, even if you know deep down there's no payoff but sadness.