Authors: Stefanie Matteson
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Murder at the Falls
A Charlotte Graham Mystery
To Cathy and Ellen and breakfasts at the Cozy End
From above, higher than the spires, higher even than the office towers, from oozy fields abandoned to grey beds of dead grass, black sumac, withered weed-stalks, mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves—the river comes pouring in above the city and crashes from the edge of the gorge in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists—
by William Carlos Williams
“I’ve found it,” said Tom Plummer as he gave their order—two mozzarella and sun-dried tomato sandwiches and two iced coffees—to the Italian waiter who hovered ingratiatingly over their table on the sidewalk outside the small Columbus Avenue trattoria.
Charlotte Graham hadn’t seen Tom for a couple of weeks. They had arranged this lunch date to catch up. Tom was what their waiter might have called her
, or serving cavalier. In Italy, many elegant older women enjoyed the special friendship of a younger man who danced attendance on them, and Tom was hers. For the last four years, ever since she had separated from her fourth husband, Jack Lundstrom, Tom had been filling the need for a man in Charlotte’s life, serving as companion, escort, chauffeur, confidant—everything in fact but her lover. It was a synergistic relationship. They joked that it was like shark and pilot fish, though who was which they weren’t sure. In exchange for being her escort, Tom got to partake of the perquisites that were hers as a veteran of fifty years (this year! it was now 1989, and she had made her first movie in 1939) in front of the cameras and on the stage. For being a star, as her second husband used to say, was like having a first-class ticket to life.
Charlotte didn’t need to ask what
was Tom’s Holy Grail, the perfect diner. Though Tom made his living writing books on true crime, his hobby, or, better put, his passion, was diners. He spent his weekends cruising the gritty downtown areas and the rural highways of the Northeast for his model of perfection. This wasn’t the first time that he had made such a pronouncement. Ruby’s Diner in Schenectady, N.Y.; Rosie’s Farmland in Little Ferry, New Jersey; and the Miss Portland in. Portland, Maine, were all among the diners that at one time or another been awarded this accolade. But each had been superseded by yet another more worthy.
With Tom, Charlotte had weighed the relative merits—in terms of the perfect diner, that is—of stainless steel versus baked enamel siding, of diners without booths versus diners with booths, of marble counters versus inlaid Formica counters. In the course of doing so, she had sampled house specialties from Atlantic City to Waldoboro, Maine (for it was axiomatic that good diners could only be found in the Northeast, the way good doughnuts could only be found in New England, or good barbecue south of the Mason-Dixon line). She did so somewhat reluctantly, for she didn’t share Tom’s enthusiasm for diner food, where specialties of the house tended toward the likes of cinnamon buns, macaroni and cheese, and onion rings. She shared the opinion of John Steinbeck, who observed that a diner was a place where you couldn’t get a bad breakfast or a good dinner. But she did make an exception for lemon meringue pie, which she had developed as her own area of expertise (in contrast to Tom, whose field was tube steaks and french fries), and about which she had schooled herself in all the subtleties, from the stiffness of the meringue to the consistency and sweetness of the filling.
If the price Tom paid for their arrangement was carrying the bags once in a while, the cost to Charlotte was accompanying Tom on his culinary crusades. Or so she said. Actually, she enjoyed these trips to the hinterlands. More than that—she needed them. Ever since she had split up with Jack, she had felt a peculiar sense of restlessness, an urge to get in a car and go. She was sure that, had she given into her urge to drive west until she hit the Pacific, she would have turned right around and driven back again. That’s how bad it was. Her old friend, Kitty Saunders, who was fond of doing readings from Tarot cards, the
, the configurations of the stars, and whatever other tools of prognostication that happened to be in vogue at the moment, had defined Charlotte’s basic character in terms of the traveler: a person whose creative energies demand the fuel of new experiences. Which was true, but lately she hadn’t felt as much like a traveler—who presumably has a destination in mind—as someone who is floating freely through life. The trips with Tom helped satisfy her need to hit the road.
She also suspected that her fondness for these trips had something to do with reliving her youth, which in turn had something to do with her recent birthday, on which she had turned seventy. Sixty-nine hadn’t seemed old to her, but the number seventy, with its sharply angled seven and implacable zero seemed to carry a sense of finality that fifty or sixty, or even eighty or ninety, with their sinuous curves, didn’t have. Which had nothing to do with how she felt, which was just fine, thank you. Like a girl, in fact—a girl who’s just been released from the stifling atmosphere of a New England girls’ finishing school. The road trips with Tom gave her the same exhilarating sense of independence that she had felt at the beginning of her career, when, as a cast member in a road company, she had played in one city one night and another the next. The names of those cities reverberated in her memory like the destinations announced over the loudspeaker in a railway station: Waterbury, Allentown, Providence, Hartford, Syracuse. Just thinking about those days brought back that wonderful sense of expecting the unexpected that came from never being quite certain of where she would light next.
She shifted her attention back to the man who sat across the table, his clear, gray eyes dancing with excitement. He had a plain face: honest and straightforward, which was probably responsible, at least in part, for his success. He could talk his way into any milieu from boardroom to barrio and come away with the answers that he needed. She had met him eight years ago when he was writing an article for a New York magazine on her role in solving the murder of her co-star in a Broadway play. He had later expanded the article into a best-selling book entitled
Murder at the Morosco
, after the lovely old theatre at which the murder had taken place, and which had long since been torn down in the name of progress.
“Where?” she asked as the waiter delivered their iced coffees. Though it was mid-September, there wasn’t a hint of fall in the air. The temperature over the last few days had climbed into the nineties and stayed there, which made her wonder if winter would make up for this glorious Indian summer.
“Paterson, New Jersey,” Tom replied. “The Falls View Diner.”
“Paterson, New Jersey,” she repeated with a tone of nostalgia. I haven’t been in Paterson since I sold war bonds there. At the Fabian Theatre, as I recall. With Lou Costello and Bud Abbott. It was Lou’s hometown. I think there’s even a park named after him there. Lou Costello … and Linc Crawford.”
Linc Crawford had been her third husband, and the only one among them who was a movie star. As a result, he was the husband who was best remembered by her public, but she had actually been married to him for the shortest period of time—six months, which had been about five-and-a-half months too long. He had been charming and handsome, but he had also been a womanizer and a drunkard, a fact that was forgotten not only by her public, but even sometimes, by her.
“Aha!” said Tom, his droopy mustache twitching with amusement. “Is that where your legendary romance with the screen hero began?”
“No. I was still happily married to Will then.” But it had been the first time she had met Linc, and she remembered the surge of electricity she had felt when she shook his hand (like an electric eel, she now thought). Though she considered the marriage a mistake, it had served one purpose, which was to cure her of any weakness she might have harbored for the blandishments of male charm.
She watched Tom as he sipped his coffee, all the while subtly eyeing the women who passed by their table. He professed to like his bachelor life—though he was close to forty, he had never married—but Charlotte suspected that he would really have liked to settle down. She never discussed this with him—far be it for her to question a lifestyle that was so well-suited to her own needs—but she often wondered how long it would last.
“How did a diner in Paterson ever escape you?” she asked. Not only was New Jersey Tom’s home turf—he had been brought up there and had worked for years at New Jersey newspapers—it was also the diner crusader’s Holy Land. The diner hadn’t been born in New Jersey (that distinction went to the state of Rhode Island), but it was in New Jersey that the diner had reached its artistic peak. New Jersey was to diners what Tuscany was to Renaissance art.