Three Empty Frames is the first book in my series: The Bucks County Novels. As a new writer, I had to learn on the fly writing, editing and publishing this book. With some revisions and a more intriguing introduction, my debut novel is polished and ready for prime time. I’ve submitted it to the Writers Digest Self-Published e-Book Awards. Will keep you posted as to how that works out. I’m not really expecting an award, but some added exposure would be nice. Three Empty Frames is available in both e-book and paperback on Amazon. I hope you enjoy…
Old Mick Monaghan liked to talk. Trouble was nobody listened to him anymore. Nobody except Joey Cassetori. “They think I’m getting senile, Joey,” Mick said.
“”S’alright, Mick. Keep going. I’m enjoying this story,” Joey said. He slowed his pace to match the old man’s as they made a circuit of the prison yard.
“Would have graduated in 1969 if I hadn’t lost my way. Thought we were going to change the world.”
“Yeah? How’s that Mick?” Joey prompted. It was hard keeping Mick on track.
“We were going to start a revolution. Everybody else was having their sit-ins and putting flowers in soldiers’ guns. Nonsense like that. We wanted more than just a stop to the Vietnam War. We wanted to start our own.”
“So what happened?”
“You can’t start a revolution without money, Joey. Lots and lots of money. Getting lots of money means taking big risks.” His voice caught. “Big risks got my little brother killed and cost me the love of my life.”
“What was her name again, Mick?”
Mick told him. “She was the only person I could trust, Joey. You find a woman like that once in a lifetime.”
Every time Mick told those tales of his glory days, Joey added a few more details to the notebook he kept under the pillow in his cell. It wouldn’t be much longer now.
When he got paroled with 18 months left on his sentence, his sister Maria picked him up at the prison gate. She was letting him move into her basement until he got back on his feet. She said Uncle Louie would have work for him if he was a good boy and kept his head down. He thought about telling Maria the story on their way back to Philadelphia but he didn’t. It was almost too much to keep to himself. Almost.
When they pulled into the alleyway behind Maria’s narrow, South Philadelphia row-house, she sighed and said, “Welcome home, Joey.” He got the distinct feeling she was no happier about this arrangement than he was.
As he lifted the small duffel bag holding his personal effects from the back seat of his sister’s car, Joey determined that he would make this stint living with Maria, her loser husband and their bratty kids as short as possible. He followed her through the postage-stamp back yard into the kitchen of the home. The door to the basement was next to the refrigerator. His subterranean room was a hastily converted space —sectioned off by a couple of shower curtains suspended on clothesline. It wasn’t much better than his prison cell, but he knew he should be grateful. It wasn’t like he could afford his own place. Yet.
At least Maria had good cable service and fast internet. They didn’t allow access to the internet in prison so he was never able to verify the old man’s story until now. While his sister sautéed garlic and simmered tomatoes for his welcome-home dinner, he sat at the kitchen table with her laptop in front of him. Sure enough, after multiple searches, everything Mick said checked out. Now he just needed to search for the woman Mick had spoken of so fondly and dig up her current location. Unfortunately for Joey, she was buried deeper than he anticipated.
I watched dry-eyed as Mother’s casket was lowered into the ground. My surreptitious glances at the small crowd gathered at the gravesite revealed no overwrought mourners. No surprise. Mother had been difficult. My thoughts were full of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens and, of course, guilt at wondering if I could have tried harder.
I was her only child, we should have been close. However, it wasn’t just me —she had distanced herself from my father and she’d had no intimate friendships so far as I knew. She clung to unhappiness like a security blanket and I swear it was the thing that finally killed her. She was only 68 years old —young by today’s standards.
I held my father’s hand as the casket reached the bottom of the grave. “You all right, Dad?” I asked.
“I will be, Jen.” He gave me a sad smile. “I wish I could have made her happy.”
“Dad,” I said, squeezing his hand. “You did your best. I’m not sure anyone could have made her happy.”
When it was over, we turned from the gravesite and began to walk back to the cars. Along the way, we exchanged farewells and thank you’s with the small circle of friends and family who had joined us at the cemetery. Our housekeeper, Lucinda, helped my father into the car, while I hugged my best friends, Joni and Desdemona and promised to call them later.
“Join me for a drink and keep me company for a while?” Dad asked, as we pulled out of the cemetery road.
“Sure, Dad. I’d love to.”
We were quiet as I drove us back to my parents’ old Victorian home in Doylestown, about an hour north of Philadelphia. I followed Dad into the house and helped him out of his coat. At 81, he was slowing down, but still spry for his age. Lucinda asked if we needed anything before she retired to her apartment at the back of the house.
“Bring us some ice, would you Luci?” my father asked. “And why don’t you join us?”
“Of course, Mr. Dunne.” She went off to the kitchen while I followed Dad down the hall toward his study.
My father chuckled. “After all these years, she still can’t bring herself to call me by my first name.”
I smiled. “Old habits die hard, Dad. Mother never would have tolerated that kind of familiarity.”
“I suppose not,” he said with a sigh.
Dad’s study was a comfortable, combination office, library and sitting room. He headed for the cabinet behind his desk. “Remember when you used to follow me in here after dinner and pretend to work?”
I laughed. “Yeah. I doodled all over your drafting table and wasted all your staples.”
“Well, it was worth it, Jen. I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Dad.” When the time came to choose a career, the decision was easy. I went to school for engineering and Dad hired me at the company he had founded.
While we waited for Luci to join us, I scanned the bookcases lining the walls and their eclectic collection. They held everything from Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’ to Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Kane and Abel’. The cabinet behind the desk held a few bottles —whiskey, bourbon and cognac— along with a couple of glasses to drink from. Dad waited to pour until Luci arrived with a small bowl of ice. By then, I’d made a full circle of the room.
“What’s your pleasure, sweetheart?” he asked.
“Whatever you’re having,” I said, taking a seat in one of the chairs opposite the desk. He poured a Jameson’s and handed it to me. “Thanks.”
He poured one for himself and a cognac for Luci, then settled back in his chair. “Jen, there is something I have to tell you.”
“I’ve decided to move.” He put up a hand so I wouldn’t interrupt. “This is too much house for me. I’m starting to hate going up and down the stairs all the time. I’m moving to Westlake Village. It has apartments, assisted living and nursing care, so when I start going downhill, I can move along the system without a lot of fuss.”
Lucinda added, “And before you say anything, I’m taken care of. I’m going to Florida to live near my sister. The winters in the northeast are getting old and so am I.”
I was speechless for a moment, staring at the old desk that had belonged to Dad’s father before him. As a child, I had taken refuge in the knee hole to escape my mother’s moods. Lucinda must have read my mind. She said, “I always knew where to find you when you went missing.”
I finally felt the tears that had eluded me earlier begin to well up in my eyes. I cleared my throat. “Wow. That was fast.”
Dad continued, “I know it seems sudden but I’ve been thinking about downsizing for a while. The trouble was getting your mother on board. She wasn’t having any of it. But now….” He lifted his hands and let them drop. “My question is, do you want the house? Or should we sell?”
“Geez, Dad! I don’t know what to say. This is so unexpected. Are you sure about this? Do you want me to move home and help you out?”
“My dear, you are a young woman just getting started. You shouldn’t have the burden of caring for an old man.” He raised an eyebrow. “Besides at Westlake Village I’ll have a whole new audience for my jokes.”
I rolled my eyes. “Ok, let me think about it.” I sipped my whiskey and turned to Luci. “When do you leave?”
“I’m hoping to get to Florida before fall, so we have plenty of time. If things are settled before then I can go earlier. Your father’s apartment will be ready May first, so we have about six weeks to pack his things up. I’ll continue to look after the house until you make up your mind.”
I rubbed my temples. “Still… There’s a lot to do before then.”
Dad said, “Not to worry, I’ve already made a start. I’ve shredded old papers, pared down my wardrobe and I’ve even got my favorite books packed.” He swept his hand around. “You can either keep what’s here or donate the whole lot to the library.” He paused. “Your mother wouldn’t let me touch any of her things though. I’m afraid her bedroom, sitting room and the attic are going to be a challenge. I’m sorry, dear.”
I groaned. “Great. I’ll start as soon as I can.”
“One more thing,” he said. “I have a new lawyer.”
“What? Why?” I was shocked. “You’ve been with Vince Quinn for 40 years!”
“Yes and he’s retiring. Now, don’t worry, his son Tommy is taking over the practice and he’s a fine young lawyer.”
“If you say so.”
“Trust me, you’ll like him. Didn’t you meet him last night at the viewing? He was there.”
“I guess so. The whole thing was a blur.” With so many employees from Dad’s company paying their respects, the receiving line went on for hours. I remembered Vince and his wife, Margaret Mary being there. I vaguely recalled Dad introducing me to all three of their sons —my impression was tall, dark and handsome— but I didn’t know which of them was Tommy.
My father continued, “Tommy has everything well in hand. Besides his father has done such a nice job helping me plan our affairs that young Tommy shouldn’t have much to do. When I die, he can probate the will and settle the estate. I’ve made a nice provision for Lucinda and left the rest to you.”
“Please don’t talk like that. I hope you’ll be around for a long time.”
“Well, no matter. Tommy will take care of it all and you won’t have to worry about a thing. And you’ll get to meet him Sunday. The Quinns have invited us for dinner. You didn’t forget?”
“No, I didn’t forget.”
“Now, look,” he said, opening the top drawer of his desk and pulling out a large color brochure. “Check out the golf course over at Westlake Village. You can come play as my guest.”
As we talked over his plans for the move, I began to resign myself to his decision. Despite the circumstances, he seemed optimistic and resolute. It was time to close the book on the life he’d shared with my mother. I stayed for dinner —a light meal scavenged from the food friends had brought to the house following the news of my mother’s death.
Later, as I drove home in the fading light to my condominium, I pondered the idea of returning to live in my childhood home. When I’d finished college and moved back in with my parents, I soon found I just couldn’t stand being under the same roof as my mother. I bought the condo as soon as I could afford it. It was just the right size for a single person with a great room and two bedrooms, the smaller of which I used as an office. I couldn’t imagine giving it up, especially to rattle around in the big old Victorian all by myself. Besides, it’s not like the house was full of happy memories.
Nevertheless, Dad had said to take my time, try to think about things long term. I could redecorate and make the place my own. It might not be a practical choice for a single woman but ‘you won’t always be single, my dear,’ he had said. Way to be optimistic, Dad. I hadn’t had a date in a long time.