Publishing the highly personal THE UNDERTAKING OF TESS and THE RESURRECTION OF TESS BLESSING a few months ago just about did me in. I felt deflated and drained, eroded by a business that has become less about getting thought-provoking, soul-stroking stories into the hands of readers and more about sales tracks and book to movie deals. And while I love and deeply appreciate the generous emails and touching feedback I've received from readers about how my stories have made them laugh or cry or less alone, I found that after forty-some years as a dj, actress, restaurateur and author, I'd had it up to here with the flip side of being in the public eye. I found I could no longer stomach, literally, my blood, sweat, and tears being critiqued by some Tom, Dick, or Harry asshole on the internet.
Bottom line? While I'd never say never, I doubt I'll be jumping through any publishing hoops anytime soon---unless some twenty-year-old in a garage in Northern California comes up with a pain-free way to go about that. But writing? That's a whole 'nother ball of wax. I'm in love with it, and I'll probably always want to share it, the same way you want to share with others something nice you made.
So here's the first chapter of The Mutual Admiration Society--PARTY POOPER, which is what I've been messing around with every morning other than my dog and running out of the house in my pjs to chase red-tail hawks:)
FACT: I, Theresa Marie “Tessie” Finley, private investigator, blackmailer, eavesdropper, liar, shop-lifter, cat burglar, president of a secret society, and poison pen writer extraordinaire, hereby confess that on the night of September 28, 1959, instead of keeping my mind open, my ears glued to the ground, and my eyes peeled for suspicious goings-on in the neighborhood, the way I swore to do on the Holy Bible last week, I screwed up really, really bad. So now on top of everything else that’s not going so hot around here, my soul is probably gonna go to Hell in a hand basket even faster than it was in the first place.
’Cause I’m the brand new owner of a secret detective and blackmail society, I’d love to shrug it off and tell myself that my dropping the ball was a rookie error, but I can’t. Making excuses doesn’t cut the mustard when a crime is being committed, no matter how I’d like to slice it. Not if I’m gonna make a go of the only way I can think of to make a stack of money, which I really, really need to have.
Any private dick worth their salt would’ve at least poked their head out their bedroom window to see who was hollering loud enough to wake the dead at Holy Cross Cemetery at 1:47 A. M., “I’m warning you . . . watch your step! You’re treading on dangerous ground!” But what did I do? I committed one of the most terrible mistakes a detective can make. According to Chapter 5 in the best book written on the subject, Modern Detection, you’re never supposed to assume you know something without having proof and that’s what I did. I assumed the yelling voice in the cemetery belonged to none other than Mr. Howard Howard, who shows up at the grave of his wife once in while in the middle of the night to shout at God for taking her away, which I completely understand. I miss my daddy with every tick of his watch, and sometimes in the wee hours, I get completely fed up with the Almighty too. So I went back to working hard on my Edgar G. Robinson, “You dirty rat” impression, practicing a couple of jokes, and singing My Favorite Things, the song I’m gonna perform for the talent portion of Miss America someday to honor Daddy, even if my right ear sticks out so far that you could hang a hat on it.
It wasn’t until I stopped to take in a deep breath in the middle of, “I simply remember
my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad,” that it dawned on me that it couldn’t be Mr. Howard Howard shouting in the cemetery. I know what he sounds like from his solos with the church choir and my once a week visits to case his jewelry store out that I might have to heist someday if things go from bad to worse around here. He never sounds as gruff as the voice in the cemetery when he tells me to, “Scram, kid,” after he gets sick of me going rabid for his rubies or slobbering over his sapphires. He is an Irish tenor not a bass. So it also made sense that the screech that came flying through our bedroom window after the yelling stopped didn’t belong to Mr. Howard Howard either. That high-pitched scream belonged to a soprano.
I’m not even close to finishing the Modern Detection book that Miss Peshong over at the Finney Library dropped on top of my stack after I told her I was interested in becoming a private investigator, but thanks to Chapter Four that teaches about the importance of making a positive identification: def. Knowing who a culprit is without a shred of doubt, I’d learned enough to know what to do after my assuming screw-up. I had to grab the double Dutch jump rope out of our closet, tie it to our bedpost, and monkey down. And as soon as my feet hit the ground, I’d run to the black iron graveyard fence with the pointy spears on top and do my King Kong climbing the
impression, so I could eyeball the bad guy in person, which might be easier
said than done. Empire State
From all the time the Finley girls spend over there, I know a lot of Holy Cross by heart,
but no matter how much I loved and adored the cemetery, or how important it was to get to
the scene of the crime ASAP! the idea of heading over there in the dead of the night? All by my lonesome? My mind would really love to find a murder getting committed, but my tummy thought that was a pretty sickening idea.
I looked down at my snoring sister and partner in crime and wished I could shake her awake and we could head over there together, but I knew from years of experience that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in H e double hockey sticks that I’d be able to get Birdie up and running at 1:59 A. M. She has always been much more of a night owl than she is a rooster.
But like it or not, the president of a secret blackmail and detective society has got to do what the president of a secret blackmail and detective society has got to do, even if they thought they might toss their cookies at any second. So I sent off a quick prayer to St. Daniel, the patron saint of bravery, slid my hand under our mattress and wrestled my flashlight free, grabbed Daddy’s Swiss Army knife from under my pillow, and didn’t waste more investigating time than I already had getting dressed. I didn’t have to. I never wear a nightie ’cause, take it from me, it’s important not only for Boy Scouts to BE PREPARED, so I already had on black shorts, a navy blue T-shirt that matches my eyes, and filthy sneakers.
I jiggered my legs out our bedroom window and looked over at my final destination one last time to get my bearings and lo and behold! My prayers had been instantly answered! I saw a svelte man slip behind the Gilgood mausoleum with a body in his arms!
So there I was, without a minute to loose, about to monkey down the double Dutch rope and dash toward the black iron cemetery fence to begin my snooping better late than never, when my wiggle over the sill was interrupted by even more sounds ripping the seam out of the black velvet night.
Not more mad-shouting coming out of the graveyard or another goose-bump-raising
screech or even a cry for Help! Help! I’m getting perpetrated on over here!
These new noises were even more blood-curdling.
Elvis Presley was warbling, “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog,” and a few minutes after
that, the red hot-rod that belongs to our mother’s new boyfriend what’s-his-name laid squealing
I swear, that woman. She couldn’t be more of a party pooper if she was getting paid a dollar seventy-five an hour to do so.
I barely had enough time to scramble back into bed, yank the sheet up to my chin, and slow my breathing down before Louise came through the front door of our small two-story wooden house that looks about the same as most of the other small two-story wooden houses that beam out in blocks from St. Catherine’s Church and School like rays on a holy card.
2:19 A.M After our mother climbed the stairs, she stopped in the bathroom to take off her make-up with her Noxzema cream and tinkle out whatever she wet her whistle with at Lonnigan’s. (I miss going up to the bar with Daddy so much. Birdie and me just adored playing the Arabian Nights pinball game, laughing along with the customers at all of his jokes, and watching him break up brawls.)
2:25 After Louise kicked her high-heels off in front of our bedroom door, she tip-toed into the Finley sisters’ room. All she probably wanted to do was hit the hay after her big fat date, but she had to check and make sure that Birdie and me were where we were supposed to be and not sneaking around the neighborhood spying and snooping the way we do anytime we get the chance. (For a woman who blew out twenty-nine candles on her last birthday cake, Louise is kinda gullible. She’s fallen for the old stuff-pillows-under-your-sheet prison trick six times. In the last month.)
I kept my eyes shut, but I knew she was looking down at Birdie and me. I could smell the
Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and salty peanuts wafting off her the same they did when Daddy would come home from working his late-night shift at the bar. Only he wouldn’t just stand next to our bed and give a long-suffering sigh. “Good time Eddie Finley,” would belly-flop onto the mattress between my sister and me, gather us in his bulging muscle arms that he got from being a boxing champion, press his prickly cheek against ours, and belt out the famous song, “We belong to a mutual admiration society, my baby and me.” Only he’d change the words to, “We belong to a mutual admiration society, my babies and me.” And on other nights, the funniest and handsomest, smartest and sweetest man in the whole neighborhood would lean his ladder against the house and crawl through our bedroom window with a pillowcase over his head and a toy gun in his hand. “This is a stick up!” he’d growl like a bandit holding up a bank, only a lot slurrier. “Give me all your hugs!” When Birdie and me would pull the covers over our head and fake-scream if we were ready for him, or really scream if we weren’t, he’d laugh his head off and shout, “Ha . . . ha . . . ha! Gotcha!”
loved jokes of ALL kinds, but he really
went nuts for the ones that practically scared the poop outta you most of all.
PROOF: After we got home after trick or treating last Halloween, Daddy was waiting to tell Birdie and me this gruesome bedtime story that he made up called, “The Butcher of Keefe Ave.” After we said our prayers and he smooched us good night, I checked under the bed for the Boogeyman the way I always did, and still do, so I can tell Birdie the coast is clear and . . . and . . I almost fainted when I saw that dripping with blood raw hunk of meat! I didn’t know then that it was Daddy playing one of his great scary jokes, so I grabbed Birdie and we ran down
Keefe Ave. screaming, “The Butcher is on
the loose! Run for your lives!” It wasn’t until we stopped to catch our breaths
on the next block over that we heard our father howling hilariously back on our
FACT: If Daddy hadn’t borrowed The High Life motorboat off his pal, Joey T, so we could fish together on Lake Michigan on August 1, 1959, and if after he slipped on the bottles of beer rolling around the bottom of the boat, hit his head on the motor and fell overboard, I hadn’t sat there laughing my guts out ’cause I thought at any second he was gonna splash to the surface and say, Thought I was a goner, didn’t you Tessie. Ha…ha…ha. Gotcha! Birdie and me wouldn’t be able to see the edge of his gravestone from our bedroom window.
2:37 A. M. After our mother pressed her warm lips against Birdie’s and my foreheads, and closed our bedroom door behind her, I rolled over, nestled my sister in my arms, and broke out my biggest grin.
Birdie is better at arithmetic than me, so I’ll check with her in the morning, but the way I figured it: mad yelling + screeching + a person slithering behind a mausoleum in the middle of the night with a body in his arms—no matter how many times I added it up, I came up with the same answer.
The Mutual Admiration Society had hit pay dirt!