Behind the Panel
I inserted the edge of the flathead screwdriver into the seam and worked my way around the edge of the opening. I’d discovered this hidden panel while stripping wallpaper from the dining room of my newly acquired home. Once the edges were loosened up, I grasped the panel and slid it to the side. Now it was just me and destiny.
I reached to the floor and picked up the flashlight, which, for once in my life, actually had working batteries, and pointed it into the darkness. I felt like a huge rubber band was wound around my chest.
To the right of the opening was a set of wooden stairs. They looked sturdy, so against all good sense, I entered the passage and begin my descent.
Stepping gently, I felt each step before putting my full weight onto the tread. Each movement elicited a soft creak as I shifted from one foot to the other. One, two, three; I counted each downward step. Four, five, six, seven; the stairs were completely enclosed on both sides; I was feeling claustrophobic. Eight, nine, ten, eleven; the temperature dropped dramatically; I broke out into a cold sweat. On my twelfth step I was standing on a cement floor. I froze, listening intently for any sound that would be my trigger to book it back up the stairs and racing out the front door.
But I heard nothing save the sound of my own heart. After a few minutes I raised the flashlight and moved it slowly about the room. Near the center, a naked light bulb hung from the six foot high ceiling. I walked over, and with all the courage I could muster, pulled the chain.
In front of me I saw at least ten huge crates, the kind typically seen on loading docks. To my left, about nine feet away, stood a small writer’s desk. I walked to the crates and noticed each had a letter taped to its exterior; A, F, G, B. I was sure the letters were consecutive but I couldn’t see the fronts of all the crates. My heart was still racing but now more from anticipation than fear. I made my way to the desk. The dust-covered notebook at its center may hold the key to my curiosity.
Without lifting the notebook from its place, I turned back the cover to see scrawling, flamboyant, handwriting. At first the list made no sense to me, it just seemed to be an inventory of books or movie titles; A. “Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, B. “Landscape with an Obelisk”, C. “Chez Tortoni”, D. “A Lady and Gentleman in Black”. I cocked my head, my mind racing; why did these titles sound so familiar? Then my knees felt weak.
I turned ever so slowly from the notebook back to the crates. Could this be? Had the purchase of my first home set the wheels in motion for finally solving one of Boston’s most notorious art thefts?
I turned back to the notebook and continued reading the list, gaining confidence that my assumption was correct. Yes, there it was; H. “The Concert”, I.”Self-Portrait”. This was incredible. I’d heard a news report that the thieves were captured but that the stolen art work from the Isabella Gardner Museum heist was still missing. I’d also heard there was a $5 million dollar reward for its return. This was my lucky day!
I barely noticed the panel being moved back into place before the light went out.
My First Record: Then as Now
I believe it was the summer of 1971 when I purchased my first two 45s. I finally had a job and some money to make a few minor purchases. I went to Zayres Department Store and purchased two records; “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” by Lobo and “Mr. Bojangles” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
At the time I don’t think I gave much thought as to why I liked either of these songs. But there must have been something about their simple, unhurried melodies that appealed to this self-conscious teenager with a philosophical mind and a yearning to be different.
“Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” is a song about two young people and their dog. They don’t seem to have a permanent residence. Instead they just drive wherever the road takes them and do what is necessary to survive. When they tire of a place, they just pack up and ‘get on the road agin’. Listening to a song that talks about ‘travelin’ and livin’ off the land’ must have been very intriguing to someone who felt confined and tethered to a rundown apartment building with no means of escape. And at that point in my life, I’d never really been very far from home, so even though the ‘bright red Georgia clay’ and the ‘wheat fields of Saint Paul’ weren’t exotic, they were tempting destinations.
A recurring theme is found in the song, “Mr. Bojangles”. This is an easygoing song about a soft-shoe dancer who makes his living by performing at ‘minstrel shows and county fairs throughout the south’. While locked up for one of his many drinking binges he speaks to his cellmate about ‘how his dog and him just travelled about’. What may also have appealed to me was that Mr. Bojangles was a dancer. I have always loved to dance and my favorite form is tap. Mr. Bojangles didn’t tap, but he did the soft-shoe which was its predecessor and I’m sure that was close enough for me to form a connection.
There is another similarity between both songs that deserves mention; they both refer to a dog. I’ve always had a soft spot for dogs and, while growing up, there was always one in the house. I could never call the dog my own, though, that claim usually went to one of my four brothers. I imagine the idea of having a dog which belonged to only me might have added to the allure of these songs.
Today, when I hear either recording, a feeling of melancholy blankets me. Both songs still hold for me the romance of the open road, the freedom that comes with minimal possessions and the gratification of living life on your own terms.
I finally got my own dog. MP was a collie-shepherd mix, a gentle, golden-haired creature who stole my heart. I lost him too soon; he was hit by a car in front of my apartment building and killed instantly. I keep MP’s dog tag next to his picture and get a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I think of the night I lost him. So when I listen to Mr. Bojangles and hear how ‘his dog up and died’ and ‘after twenty years he still grieves’, I fully empathize with the old man’s sorrow.
I pulled the stack of post-its from the top drawer of my desk. Thirteen of them, all with the same message, “Why did you do it?”
‘That, whoever you are, is none of your business!’
So at 4:30pm I packed my laptop and personal belongings and left work. Instead of going home, however, I drove to the mall, had a quick dinner and drove back to work. After a quick look about the parking lot, I went into the building.
I opted for the stairs, which were usually less traveled, then walked the long way around to my desk. It was important I wasn’t seen. There were a few people here and there, on the phone or reading emails, but nobody paid attention to me. I peered over the wall to my desk and sighed with relief; there was no note on top. Whoever the culprit was had not yet delivered their poison pen post-it.
The office became very quiet after about a half-hour; my legs were cramping. The only place I could wait, unseen, was under the desk in a cube by the window. But I couldn’t give up; I needed to find out who it was that was antagonizing me.
Soon I heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps treading softly on the carpet. Slowly, deliberately, I shut off my iPad, insured my phone was still silenced and took a deep breath. I peered slowly around the divider and looked toward my desk. There she stood; a small, diminutive figure in black polyester slacks and a beige jacket. Not the type of culprit I expected.
I stood quickly and was at my desk before my nemesis knew I was there. Her startled expression told me my ruse worked like a charm.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I whispered loudly; my face only inches from hers. I didn’t recognize her.
She stammered, looked down at her thick-soled black shoes and pulled her hands close to her chest. I picked up the newly deposited post-it from my desk and held it up. “What is the meaning of these notes?”
Again she stammered, but this time her words were coherent, “I-I wanted to help you.”
“Help me! What the hell are you talking about?” My anger was swelling but I needed to keep it under control. I did not know who else was still in the building.
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “You have a sign in the kitchen”, she said, “asking for help with a title for that photograph hanging there. You know, the one of the little boy holding the broken kite? You said you needed a title for some competition.”
Taken aback, I loosened my grip.
She continued, “I thought, ‘Why Did You Do It’, was a good title.” She looked away, toward the open doorway, completely averting my eyes.
“I’ve never been good talking to people…and I don’t know you…but I thought my suggestion was a good one, so left you a note.”
“But you kept leaving them?”
“I thought, maybe, the cleaning people were throwing them away. You never said if you liked it or not. So I-I thought I would keep trying.”
I let her go. My secret was safe after all.
Promptly at 2:00pm, the door to Jason Dwyer, Esq’s office opened and he looked my way. Austerely he said, “Good afternoon. You must be Ms. Rose.”
“Yes.” I said as I reached for my purse and stood up.
“Please, come in.”
I followed the bearded lawyer into his office where he motioned for me to take a seat in front of a large oak desk; no small talk. He picked up some papers, perused the text on the first two pages and set the document down. Slowly, deliberately, he folded his hands on top of the desk. My eyes went to the paper and locked. What mystery did they hold?
“Ms. Rose, as you now know, your Uncle Dello died recently. He was 94-years-old so this was not unexpected. He came to me about two years ago to update his will. He was a very wealthy man and although you didn’t know him, he knew you very well and has made you his sole beneficiary.”
I didn’t say anything. I may have nodded my head, I’m not sure. All I could think of was that maybe, just maybe, my ship had come in, the tide had turned and I would finally be able to get my head above water.
The lawyer looked down at the will. “Your uncle left you his complete estate; $1.6 million, his house in Hull, a couple of cars, a mint-condition Indian Chieftain motorcycle and a black leather jacket.” With this last gift, Mr. Dwyer peered at me over his Marc Jacobs eyeglasses, never lifting his head.
Startled, I looked up. “A motorcycle? A black leather jacket?”
“Well, you see Ms. Rose, the will is conditional. In order for you to receive these gifts your uncle has so graciously bequeathed to you, there is something you must do… for the rest of your life.”
A chill ran up my spine and I could feel myself sinking back into the chair. I knew this was too good to be true. I’d probably have to give up my camera…or become a nun…or promise to work in corporate for the rest of my life…or get married!!
“As you know your uncle was a motorcycle enthusiast”, he continued,” and owned one of the first Indian motorcycles ever built. He loved bikes…but knew that you did not.”
“Well, no, I think they are dangerous.” The palms of my hands felt sweaty.
“Your uncle did not think so and wishes for you to learn the same.” With this statement he picked up the papers and read the following:
“There is one condition I put on this gift to my niece; once a week (weather permitting) for the remainder of her life, Noelle must ride “The Indian” while wearing my black leather jacket. I was happiest when I rode and could feel the wind in my face. I want my spirit to ride for eternity. As Noelle rides, my spirit will ride with her, and I believe, in time, she will come to love the freedom “The Indian” gives her as much as I did.”
‘Hmmm’, I thought as I relaxed into the leather chair,’ a red helmet should work just fine’.