Monthly Archives: March 2013

Button Pushers…and a bit more of Mae

    Almost every one of us has at least one person who pushes our buttons… those little tiny things that cause us to have a knee-jerk reaction. That person can be a chance encounter…waitperson, clerk, even a customer if you’re on the service side of the counter…someone you work with, an elected official you don’t even really know; the list goes on and on. And then there’s family. Siblings can be good at this, so can cousins, uncles, even parents. All it takes is having the knowledge of just what makes you momentarily crazy so that your common sense flies out the window and you can’t think of a sensible retort or reaction. If there’s a cure, please share it. Or market it. The world might be a more peaceful place.(It is actually my own belief that more wars have been started because one country ‘pushed’ another country’s ‘button’ than for almost any other reason. Think about it)
    So, where is this all leading? Back to Mae who when last we saw her was viewing a corpse in an alleyway. Left to her own devices Mae would more than likely be a practicing nurse in her home county in Scotland. Her brother Drummond would have been a barrister with a wife and kids, maybe even a country house. But the drink pushed Drummond’s buttons so hard that he disappeared. Mae wouldn’t lose him…so she searched until she found him. That doesn’t mean she can stop worrying. Drummond pushes her buttons every time he packs up and moves on.


   “Sir?” I’d learned a while back to start conversations with cops and other official personages politely and sweetly. “May I have a word?”
   “We’re busy,” the cop growled as he took in my disheveled appearance. “No time for idle…”
    “I know him,” I said, broadening me accent but still polite “Alf worked day jobs for Fr’er Andy. And he took his rests at St. Jude’s shelter. No way he would…”
   “I told you, woman, we’re busy.” I caught sight of his nameplate. B. Parsons.
   “Officer Parsons, sir, ye might want to…”  
   “What I want is to get done with this matter. No foul play suspected. Nothing to gape at either, so you can be on your way.” He turned to the waiting attendants. “He’s all yours.” They nodded, zipped poor Alf’s body into one of those plastic bags and hoisted him onto the gurney. The cop didn’t wait five heartbeats before he loped back to his car and took off.
   “That’s all there is to see, um, ma’am,” said the attendant closest to me. “Unless you’re a relative, he’s riding to the morgue alone.”
   “He didn’t have anyone.” As they started to wheel Alf across the uneven weed-clogged ground of the lot, I asked a last question. “Did he have his brogues on?”
   “Brogues? What in the hell are brogues?” The two men looked at me like I was daft.
   “Brogues,” I repeated. “Shoes. Boots. Leather. Did he have his shoes on?”
   “Shit, lady, you coulda said that. No. No shoes. Crappy ol’ socks but no shoes.” He signaled his partner to move before I got any more questions out. I tagged slowly behind them, picking my way through the tall grasses and crushed paper containers. I reached the cracked pavement just as they loaded Alf into the back of the ambulance and shut the doors.  Around me, those few people who had stayed to watch shuffled away, their curiosity stifled by the sight of a sealed body bag. No one asked obvious questions in the neighborhood. It was safer that way.  News traveled by word of mouth over the late meal at the mission kitchen. Life carried on without Alf as it had with the three other men who had been found dead over the past few weeks. No one thought it strange except me. Drum and some of the others I’d talked to after the other deaths figured it was theft. Good boots are hard to come by. Even the shopkeepers wanted things forgotten. Four men dead now, and all I knew was all of them had been found outside near a dumpster, and none of them had been wearing shoes.
                                                                                                                     * * *
   It was goin’ on six, the sun already a sliver in the Massachusetts sky as it sank beneath the west bank of the Taunton. Dinnertime in Townsend-Nestor. Father Andy’s soup kitchen was overflowing with both diners and the fragrant stew his volunteers managed to have on hand almost every night. No variety, but when you’re hungry hot is hot and food is food. I cherished me own bowl, scrapin’ the sides to get the last of the gravy, pausing only when my vagabond brother eased himself onto the bench beside me.
   “ ‘Evening, Mae.” Drum’s voice was so soft it was almost lost in the rumble of sound produced by those enjoyin’ their stew. “You hear about ol’ Alf?” He set his plastic spoon on the wooden planks of the table and sighed. “Makes four.”
   I met his earnest, bloodshot gaze. Drum had fallen off the wagon again a week earlier and his pallor still told the tale.
   “And it mighta been you,” I groused at him before I laid me bowl down and gave him a sisterly hug. “We both know Alf was a boozer. Not that it makes it right for him t’die that way. The coppers are still callin’ it accidental. I’m beginnin’ to be of a different mind. It’s the brogues.”
   “Him too?” I saw Drum glance at his battered and stained lace-ups, bought secondhand from the thrift store. “Why would someone want his shoes? Guess I’m safe, then. Til I get some coin for the work I been doin’ for the Father, these’ll keep me. Even with the paper in the soles. Are ye thinkin’ murder then, Mae?” His whisky voice dropped to a whisper and I had to lean in to hear.
   “Aye. But for what reason I dinna know. I’ll find out though, brother.” I eased myself up away from the table and scooped up bowl, spoon and plastic cup. Drum stared at me. “Because,” I said, “it’s in my nature and you know it.” I left him, took my cargo to the plastic dish trays set up by the volunteers, and stopped to chat once or twice before I went back out into the streets of the Townsend-Nestor neighborhood.

                                                                                                             * * *
   Next mornin’, after my tea and a biscuit from the box I kept next to the tins of soup and fruit, I headed over towards McGinty’s. Coppers again, and some olive-skinned man in a fine woven grey wool suit and loose tie talkin’ with them. A detective I wagered, and someone I could learn from if I played me cards right. I shifted my stance to that of an over-clothed aging bag woman and waddled over, my three skirts, sweater and pea coat swaying with each step.
   “Ma’am. Ma’am! You need to walk around.” Grey Suit jogged over. I caught a hint of exasperation in his unexpectedly green eyes, whether at my presence or the fact he’d had to negotiate several muddy patches I wasn’t sure.
   “Just wonderin’ about Alf,” I said, my Scots burr in full form. “Are ye catchin’ the man that kilt him?” I let that question sink in before askin’ another. “And have ye found the shoes?”
   “Kilt? Who? That derelict we found yesterday? Medical examiner ruled heart attack. No ‘kilting’, whatever that is.” To his credit, he didn’t add, ‘you old dolt’.
   “Murder then, lad,” I added. “Alf’s heart were as strong as mine. And he wouldna chose to sleep in the open on a night like the last few. And he wouldna lost his shoes neither. So are ye lookin’?” I put my face on a level with his chest and waited as he stashed his notepad and stick pen. “For the killer.”
   “No need. It were…was an accident. Nicotine overdose. According to witnesses, the victim was a heavy smoker. Tried to quit. Looks like he got some patches from the free clinic. They noticed a rash on his neck and some nicotine residue. We found a can of RedMan in his pocket. I guess he needed the taste of tobacco too. Did his heart in.” The man made to move away toward the uniforms. I put a hand on his arm.
   “Alf never chewed. And I never saw him wearin’ a patch. How’d your examiner figure that one?” I took my hand away as one of the coppers ran over. “No need to fuss, sir. Just askin’ the man a question.”
   “I’ll be back in a moment, Officer,” Grey Suit said. “This lady was just leaving.”
   “Sure thing, Detective Morales.” The uniform loped back to the back of McGinty’s store.
   “Our M.E. is very good at her job, ma’am,” he said. “It was an accidental death. Plain and simple. A homeless man, too much of a stimulant like nicotine. And the cold night didn’t help. Now, please excuse me.”
   “What about the other three, Detective? Or don’t they count since they died homeless here in Townsend-Nestor as well?” My temper and my face went red at the thought of those other deaths; all homeless, all friends of mine. I stood there hoping for a response, but he was skirting the mud on the way back to his colleagues.



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Once Upon a Character

Some time ago I wrote a mystery story which now resides under my writing desk in a box. I liked the premise (still do) but discovered I enjoyed writing about a secondary character more than I did about the necessary police protocol. As a reader, I think every character is important to a story… as important to the book as the narrative itself. Secondary characters are no exception. For me, they are the twists, the unexpected, the humor in a too dark chapter, and the proof that the author cares about his principals enough to give them a fleshed out cast of supporting characters. As a writer, I believe those characters can give more depth to the protagonist and reveal things that we readers not only want to know but need to know in order to follow the hero to the end. Spencer has Hawk, Dave Robichaux has Clete. Nora Blackbird has her sisters. And the detective who languishes in that book box beneath my desk has Mae McEwan. I’d like you to meet her. I think she’s a pip…and there’s more to her than meets the eye.


My full name is Margaret Kathleen Mary Fiona McEwan but you can call me Mae. Most people do. Sometimes they add Dundee to the Mae. That’s where I was born some forty years ago, near the highlands of Scotland. I’m a nurse–some call me a healer— by trade although for the past twenty years my main occupation has been to traipse after me older brother Drummond. He drinks. Our mum and dad disowned him long ago, so he took to wandering and ended up in the States. I made it my business to follow. He has no skills, not unless getting into scrapes wherever he manages to put his feet qualifies. So far they’ve been the minor kind, brawls in the pubs and missin’ days at the jobs he hires out on. Mostly it’s his friends who need the helping, so I meddle a bit; find out what I can to set things right. Then we move on. It never pays to stay too long in one place. Trouble comes to the door when ye warm your feet at one fire more than a bit. We did that in Chamberlain City, Drum and me, and we almost died.

It was the fall of the year, warm days and chill damp New England nights near the branch of the Taunton River that runs through Chamberlain City, Massachusetts. I’d settled into one of the old warehouses lining Dockside Road, the main avenue to the once thriving but now ramshackle port and warehouses. Faded brick and old wood, they contained vacant offices from the more successful days of shipping. I claimed the largest of the second floor offices at the defunct D&S Imports and made it my home. Scavenging provided some creature comforts; a mattress from the mission along with a quilt or two, a used hot plate and pot for boiling water for me tea and a wash-up from the thrift shop and a single setting of dishes I cadged from the soup kitchen. The rest I had in my carpetbag. I travel light so I can keep chasin’ after Drum, who usually sleeps at shelters or worse with no more than the clothes on his back. I worried about him, but he didn’t want anyone to think he needed a keeper. I kept an eye on him all the same. Living among the homeless was serious business.
This morning the dented metal teakettle I’d pulled from the dumpster behind McGinty’s store tooted merrily. I’m a stickler about me tea. I’d carried a brown crockery teapot with me since I left Dundee, just to have a decent brew, and had already placed my well-used tea ball inside, filled with those precious dark leaves waiting to be bathed in the scalding water. I loved the smell of the brewing almost as much as the drinking itself. As I tilted the liquid from the kettle into the small pot I watched the steam rise gently, inhaling the beginnings of that heady fragrance that comes from good Earl Grey leaves. It was then that I heard not one but two sets of sirens, screaming their approach closer and closer until they seemed to stop just outside my building. Forgetting the tea, I grabbed my old pea coat from the hook near the door. Sirens in the Townsend-Nestor dockside area were never just a drill. Something bad had happened, and each time I thought it might be happening to Drum.
    As I reached the ground floor I pulled open the scarred glass paneled door with those faded D&S letters still visible. I could see an ambulance and a single fire truck stopped just near the tent city where most of the homeless families spent the summer; sweltering in the heat and hiding out from the summer storms. Two figures in blue and white jumpsuits pulled a collapsible cart from the back of the ambulance and headed into the vacant lot behind McGinty’s store. If I’d had my common sense on that day I’d have headed back upstairs, but I was worried about me brother, and curious as well. So, I buttoned up, pulled out an old ball cap to cover my unruly red hair and rushed over to see what I could see.
   “Hola, Mae. Como esta?” The voice belonged to Felix Fuentes. His greeting was followed by a quick puff on one of those inhalers that helped people with asthma breathe. Felix had more than asthma. He was minus a lung although he never said why. He was a good man with a hard history.
   “Hola, Felix. Seen Drum?” I walked over to his side, taking notice that his thin frame was shivering in the river breeze. “Och, lad, where’s your coat? It may be a bonny day but it’s still a brisk one.”
   “Ah, Mae, I heard the noise and left it behind. When I was a boy, the sirens were never a good thing. I needed to see.” His dark eyes showed large in his face. “But no, Drum I have not seen. No crea que…?”
   “I truly hope not.” My words were to ease Felix’s worry as well as my own. The fire unit stood apart from the ambulance, the men shrugging out of their gear and closing up the hose compartments. No fire. That at least was good. Flames down here would take out more than just the wooden framed storefronts. St. Jude’s Shelter and the mission’s soup kitchen would be cinder and char if a fire ran rampant. “Go get your wrap,” I said to Felix. “I’ll keep an eye out and come tell you what I see. You still working day jobs for the Father?”
   “Si, for Father Andy at the church. You will come soon?”
   “I promise. Now go before you catch your death.”
   As Felix left, I made my way easily through the sparse group of onlookers gathered at the edge of the vacant lot. Ramona, my partner in caring for the wee ones, nodded at me but said nothing. Three leather-jacketed toughs ambled past with nary a look, like they’d seen it before. Florence Anders, the city’s latest excuse for a social worker, barked at Tom Folger, one of Drum’s scavenging pals, to get out of her line of vision. A serious young man with a camera clicked away with his digital camera and talked to the onlookers. The ambulance door stood wide open, but what held my interest was the arrival of a green and white vehicle bearing the words “Chamberlain City Police” and the motto “Protecting the People”. A stocky balding figure with grim features got out and walked up to one of the firemen, who extended an arm in the direction taken by the ambulance attendants. I followed his progress as I stepped closer to the fire truck.
   “You’ll have to stop right there, ma’am.” The fireman’s voice let me know he meant business. “Nothin’ to see but an old bum. Just like the last one. You’d think these old geezers would….” He noticed my layers of clothing and faded ball cap and shrugged. “Just stay back.” He stowed his gear in the side compartment of the engine and walked off, stopping to have a word with that photo taker. I waited one long second and set my feet on the course that would take me closer to the cop and the gurney.
   “McGinty called it in,” I heard one of the attendants tell the cop. “Found him outside next to the dumpster when he came out with the trash. Looks like the old guy died in his sleep. According to McGinty, his name is Alf Bannerman.”
   So it wasn’t Drum. But something wasn’t right. Alf had a long-standing place at St. Jude’s. He was as apt to catch a nap outside as I was to be drinkin’ that bottled tea they sold at the store.

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If The Shoe Fits…

…then it isn’t on my foot.

I have big feet. Not gigantic and un-shoeable, but big. It wasn’t always this way of course. My travels through childhood were in Buster Brown shoes, flats from the local shoe store, penny loafers and saddle shoes (both chunky and streamlined. The chunky style seems to be having a resurgence in some quarters). I was however a size 9 medium by the time I reached 8th grade and somehow ended up in a pair of 3 inch pointy-toed shoes for graduation …which made me about 9 inches taller than my processional partner, the shortest boy in my class.
9 was my number throughout high school until one inexplicable moment when the shoe salesman measured my foot and informed me I had one foot that was now a 9 3/4 and one that was a 10 (NOT the perfect Bo Derek kind). Still, I could be shod without too much trouble in fairly stylish shoes. Since I was by that time almost 18, I figured 10 was my number for life. Large but not unmanageable, right? Oh so wrong.
My number 10 feet deserted me once I was ‘with child’…one of those old wives’ tales that seems to have some basis in reality (I’ve since discovered a lot of them do). One day my size 10s no longer fit. My toes draped over the end of my sandals. My pinky toes and big toes were cramped, even in square-toed stacked heels. The horror! I asked to be measured again and discovered I was that dreaded non-existent size, 10 ½ B with an AA heel! How can this be? Feet change as you age, I was told. It can be in width or, as in my case, in length. But there are no shoes in 10 ½, I cried. Every shoe I’ve ever seen jumps from 5 through 10 INCLUDING half sizes, and 11. Not true, a shoe guru informed me. There ARE shoes in your size. They’re just a wee bit hard to locate. And they might be just a tad expensive. Oh how he lied. Impossible to find and a good bit more pricy was closer to the mark, unless of course you live in a really large city with many different (and pricy) shoe stores…and I don’t. The trip alone to The City would cost me more in gas or train fare than three pair of shoes in the dreaded size 11! Going barefoot was not an option. Dangerous to my feet given what’s on the ground or in carpets these days…so I coped and opted to size up when I needed to, rationalizing that all 11s were created equal.
Not so. Each shoe brand, much like each clothing brand, has its own sense of size and style. The more expensive, the more generous the sizing and range of designs. Bargain brands tend to run small (or REALLY big) and the bigger sizes can be downright (shudder) matronly. Shopping for shoes was depressing. I resolved to spend my life wearing walking shoes and padding the toes of my dress shoes. How sad. I couldn’t wear stylish backless slip-ons because I would walk out of them…rather embarrassing at meetings and workshops. Even strappy sandals betrayed me, their tiny straps slipping below my heel even at the tightest setting. Was there any hope at all?
Of course the answer is ‘yes, Maryann, there’s always hope, even in the world of shoes.’ Several shoe brands now have 10 ½ in different styles. I have two pair (from different places) that fit me like a glove. However…I tried to replace one and found that the 10 ½ they sent me was more like a 12! The other is no longer made. Sigh. So, I compromise. I can wear 11 in sandals with an adjustable band on top (and they’re cute too) and an 11 in boots gives me room for socks or the bottom of my jeans leg. Not too problematic. And I watch the local stores for shoe sales at the beginning of each season. IF I’m lucky, I might be able to snag one of the few 10 ½ sized pairs that seem to appear and disappear like the fog on a spring morning… because there are now a lot of us who, for some reason or another, covet those rarities—stylish shoes in the elusive 10 ½! I have noticed though that lately the size 11 shoes seem to be smaller…the adventure isn’t over yet!

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The sun came out today….just long enough to highlight the cobwebs that have somehow eluded my vacuum and broom during the dreary days of February. Or longer. I make a mental note to get to them sometime in the next day or two and hope I do. Chores seem to take a back seat to so many other things, you know?
My house isn’t a mess by any means. I’m in no danger of being featured on Hoarders any time soon. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit cluttered. I seem to accumulate things during the drab days of winter and then wait for the first signs of spring to get into the mood to organize. My latest acquisitions in the categories of books, movies and music sit in somewhat neat stacks waiting for me to clear out some of their predecessors and make room for them, alphabetizing as I go and keeping a box or two handy for the donations to our local library or Goodwill. Media addict that I am, this is not fun. For some strange reason, my collection of bake ware and plastic storage containers also grows; a somewhat easier task to accomplish since dings and dents and stains tend to qualify said objects for either use in the garage or recycling. That said, I cling to my dad’s old popcorn pot and some bread pans that must have been passed down a generation or two. Heck, no one’s perfect.
Clothing also falls prey to my quest to make room. My solution is simple. If I haven’t worn it in two years, it goes. Goodwill, Salt & Light (a local charity that does a lot of good), or a local church. I am better that this than my other half, who still believes he might be a 34/30 in pants one of these fine days and hates to throw out shirts even if they’re frayed at the cuffs. “I’ll wear them for woodworking or gardening,” says he whenever I ask. And yet his closet has less in it than mine. Go figure.
The hardest clutter clearing task is, at least for me, weeding through all the trivia and useless gossip that seems to clog my brain during the colder months. Granted some stuff is wonderful fodder for writing, retelling, and inspiring dreams, but there is crueler clutter. Bad days, unpleasant experiences that replay no matter how we try to hit ‘stop’, bad things happening to good people and those stress producers over which we have no control. There’s only so much space in my conscious mind, right? I’d rather fill that space with good and displace the bad. Easier said than done of course, but there is a way. It takes time of course…all good things do. Start each day with a positive thought. Doesn’t have to be profound. Smile at your face in the mirror. Decide to get out and do something you don’t have to do., even if it has to wait until your work day is done. Look around you and appreciate the beauty we take for granted. Baby steps of course, but after a while, the tendency to dwell on the negative can lessen and usually does. And those mental cobwebs go away.
Ah. Cobwebs. I’d better get them out of the way before I go any further. Or the sun comes out again. Happy March Monday all!

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