Essentials

The first Friday of the month meant bread-making at the Grange, and so, on February 5, Stephanie pulled up in front of the dilapidated building which always reminded her of a church. If it were a church, she wondered (not for the first time), what kind would it be? A temple to consecrate cows and corn? A place to voice liturgies for spring rain with an altar at which to candle eggs? Stephanie looked up to the peeling white clapboards and the low steeple (which was beyond the peeling stage and well into wood rot) and thought that the Grange building could certainly use a little praying for. She wondered how much longer the few farmers left in town would keep this particular decrepit temple from falling in on itself. And Stephanie knew from experience that the outside was in far better shape than the inside.

The women who came to use the bakery-sized dough kneader in the basement kitchen of the Grange had to tote in their own water if they wanted to be sure it wasn’t full of visible contaminants. They also had to be tolerant of other inhabitants − the heat would be set just low enough to discourage any squatters except for the four-footed variety. If Linda had arrived before Stephanie, though, the space heater would have warmed up the kitchen, and the mouse droppings would have been chloroxed away before the sealed plastic bins of flour and yeast and honey were opened. The Grange was not an ideal venue. The bread co-op had inquired at churches in the area for an alternative site with a large kitchen to host their monthly operation, but apparently religious organizations were more skittish about Board of Health regulations and the possibility of lawsuits than the Grange was. So, they came to the Grange. Stephanie did think it was good to see the building used; it sat right in the middle of town and must have been a center of activity back in the days when Dalton was populated by farmers.

There was another vehicle in the lot, but it was an old red Ram truck and certainly not Linda’s bumper sticker-laden bright blue Prius. Stephanie had dropped off her son Bertie at pre-school and decided that it was not worth it to go home again before bread-making, making her at least ten minutes early. The front door of the Grange was unlocked, so Stephanie let herself in and headed across the meeting room. She carefully avoiding the debris from the Grange’s last fundraiser, which had consisted of the sale of llama manure from area farms – and even in the refrigerator-cold there seemed to be a llama-odor emanating from the left-over signs and buckets. One end of the large meeting room held a slightly raised platform, which seemed to be a repository for the remains from a 4-H Fair, and over which was a molding inscribed in fading gold: “In Essentials, Unity − In Non-Essentials, Liberty – In All Things, Charity.” This motto always impressed Stephanie for reasons she could not quite put her finger on. Certainly, Stephanie reflected, the Grange building had deteriorated into the bare essentials and was in desperate need of charity. She wondered what the farmers who started the Grange in the nineteenth century thought was “essential,” and momentarily wondered how she would define the “essential” in her own life. But Stephanie was too laden with physical burdens to spend much time with weighty philosophical problems and moved toward the stairwell, swaying with the bulk of canvas totes filled with plastic jugs of water and clinking with the jostling of the large metal bowls (to take the dough home in) and shivering. It seemed to be even colder inside the building than it was outside on this sunny February morning. She looked forward to the warmer kitchen and a little chitchat with Linda and whoever else was making bread with her this morning.

The women (no house husbands in this group) would make their dough (wheat, rye, sour dough, even pie crust dough) in shifts, and schlep it home to freeze or bake up. Stephanie had had no luck resurrecting frozen dough, so she would spend the whole afternoon baking the ten loaves of bread (freezing after baking seemed to work better) to last her household a couple of weeks and to serve as one more sign that she was a really fine wife and mother. Stephanie needed such material reinforcement, because being a wife and mother was – paradoxically – both boring and difficult. The original plan had been that once Bertie was four and Sally was six, Mommy would go back to work. But the economy had not cooperated, and there were no jobs around – especially in public relations – that paid enough to cover the cost of someone to watch the kids and transport them back and forth to school (pre-school and first grade respectively). So, she and Don had made the decision that Stephanie should stay at home for a couple more years and try job-hunting again when Bertie reached first grade – assuming that the economy improved and that Stephanie had not lost her mind by then.

One way that Stephanie was trying to retain her sanity was by using her surplus energy to become the very best homemaker she could be. Thus she joined the bread co-op, along with the Friends of the Library, the Robin’s Hill Parent Teacher Association, and two play groups. She had been making bread for about six months and it had been one of her more successful ventures. Her family liked the bread and Stephanie enjoyed the process of watching the bread magically rise and then brown in the oven. Don, Sally, and even little Bertie oohed and aahed the day the bread was baked; the house smelled wonderful and the bread tasted great warm from the oven – especially spread with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. But after that first magical baking day, they just ate it and complained if there were too many “things” in it – Stephanie had learned to omit any ingredients like flax-seed that speckled up the finished product. Her children liked their food pure.

Bread-making was a lot of work and barely even cost-effective, but Stephanie could only hope that in later years Sally and Bertie would remember that their mother fed them wholesome bread and – with their selective memory filter turned on – have warm reminiscences of coming home from school every day (rather than once a month) to the smell of baking yeast and flour. Rather like the real memories of the children whose parents built this Grange building a century and a half ago, Stephanie mused.

All of this was going through Stephanie’s mind as she made her way down the dark stairway to the basement where the kitchen was (keep the women in their place). She was still unsure if anyone was there. When she got to the bottom and pushed open the fire door, there was the smell of damp concrete, but no sound of voices or machinery. There was a light on at the far end of the basement, but the doorway to the kitchen was closed. Linda must be running late. Stephanie started toward the kitchen door, reasoning that she should at least leave her baggage in the kitchen before going out to wait in her warm car, but as she approached the door and stepped into the pool of light shed by the naked bulb, a shiver caused her to drop the metal bowls and send them clanging and rolling across the cement floor. There, amid the old stoves, folding tables, and stacked chairs, was a pile of clothes that looked suspiciously like a person. Stephanie slowly put down her bags and inched a little closer, hoping that it was a scarecrow leftover from the Fall Fair. It wasn’t. It was a person. Or it used to be a person.

“Hello – hello – are you all right?”

Stephanie’s wavering voice was absorbed in the walls of the damp basement, but the body on the floor did not move. Stephanie sidled a little closer and started to feel in her purse for her cell phone.

“Are you OK? I think I should call someone.” Clearly the man on the floor was not going to respond. Clearly he was not OK. She took another step closer and cautiously nudged the back of the man’s neck. It was cold and dry. Very cold. She dialed 911.

“Hello. Hello. I’m in the basement of the Dalton Grange – there seems to be somebody dead down here. Anyway I think he’s dead. Yes, I’m pretty sure.”

The voice on the other end calmly wanted more information. All of a sudden, Stephanie started thinking about an awful old Spike Mulligan joke about a hunter calling about his collapsed buddy, and a dispatcher who asks the hunter to be sure that his partner is dead. The partner says OK and the next thing you hear is a gunshot. She slapped down the perverse imp in her mind and tried to concentrate on what the operator was asking her.

“No, I don’t know the address here – but it’s the Grange Building right in the middle of town. They’ll know. And the door is open.” The voice on the other end wanted still more information and Stephanie supplied her cell phone number, name, and address. And she then replied to the next question emphatically by assuring the dispatcher that she had no idea who the injured person was.

“And I don’t know how it happened – there’s no blood or anything. But I think he’s dead. Something bad must have happened to him.” Stephanie realized that she had just said something stupid. If he was dead, certainly something bad had happened to him.

The dispatcher offered to stay on the line with Stephanie until the police arrived, but Stephanie said that was not necessary and hung up − and almost immediately regretted it as the quiet set back in. She had an initial instinctive urge to go outside and wait in the sunshine.

But Stephanie was a reader of murder mysteries and knew she should stay with the victim. She stacked her bowls and bags against the kitchen door and decided to look around. She studied the body for a few minutes. Maybe there were some clues around as to what had happened. Maybe since she was the one to find the body, she would even be among the suspects. Stephanie took another look at the man on the floor to reassure herself that she really didn’t know him – people were very seldom suspected of killing someone they didn’t know. She then noticed a coat draped over a pile of folding chairs – an old green flannel-lined barn coat. Why had he taken off his jacket in the cold cellar? Of course, he was still pretty well covered in clothes, with a gray hooded sweatshirt over a red flannel shirt and bulky jeans which looked like they might be covering long underwear. She didn’t think she should touch the body again, although there was the outline of a wallet in the back pocket of his jeans which might tell her who he was and was therefore sorely tempting. But Stephanie did think she might look at the jacket – if she didn’t move it too much.

The jacket was ice-cold. Probably been here for a while, she thought, and wondered about the time of death. She slipped her hand into the exposed pocket of the jacket and came up with a handful of lottery tickets – some were the machine tape receipts for buying megabucks tickets and some were used instant tickets. Stephanie had watched people buy piles of lottery tickets at the general store and wondered who could be that stupid. This guy was obviously a big player. Could it have anything to do with his death? Could there have been a winning ticket in this pocket before someone silenced its owner, took off his jacket, found the valuable ticket, and made off with it?

There was a tool box not far from the body that looked too clean to have been a normal part of the basement debris. It must belong to the dead man. And there was a shovel right next to the tool box, which also looked too shiny to have been there long. Why would he have a shovel in the basement? The floor was cement, not dirt. A bulldozer might be useful in cleaning out the mess, but Stephanie doubted that a shovel would do much good. What had he been doing down here? Had he died here or had someone dragged him to the Grange? Had the murderer intended to use the shovel to bury the body, but changed his mind? Or might the culprit be waiting in the kitchen for her to clear out? Stephanie fought back another urge to run up the stairs.

But Stephanie calmed herself down quickly and was surprised to find that she was quickly getting over her qualms about being alone with a dead guy. It was actually exhilarating. She wondered if the police would question her there in the basement or take her back to their small town headquarters in back of the town hall. She wouldn’t mind going back to the station. Maybe they would be interested in her ideas about what might have happened. Maybe she could have coffee with the cops.

And, she thought, if they weren’t interested in her ideas, maybe she could investigate on her own. Stephanie was known in her family for being the one who could find lost objects. And Stephanie was pretty good on the internet; she thought about how she would go about getting information on this guy – once she found out who he was. And information about recent winning lottery tickets too. And about the Grange. Who had access to the Grange? Was there some symbolic reason that he was killed there? If that was his truck outside, maybe he was a farmer. Maybe some evil developer had been after his land and he had refused to sell. If so, it would be even more important to expose the murderer. She could look into what property the man owned – again, once she found out who he was.

Stephanie leaned down and looked at the body. The man was facedown, with his face turned to the left, his right arm tucked against his side and his left arm extended over his head. His left hand extended out of a red flannel cuff and was capped with the crescents of filthy nails. No watch, but the hand wore a very thin gold wedding band. Was there a wife? Why wasn’t she looking for him? Stephanie hadn’t heard anything about a missing person, but maybe he hadn’t been missing that long. Or, maybe his wife wasn’t looking for him because she knew where he was. That was something else to look into. She was good at getting people to talk. Maybe she could visit the widow to pay her condolences since she had been the one to find the body. And maybe the widow would offer her tea or coffee. There were so many possibilities to pursue.

But might such sleuthing put her in danger? Would it be fair to her family to put herself in jeopardy over this? Maybe it didn’t have to be so risky. She could get a gun. Then Stephanie had to remind herself that she had never believed in having guns in the house – especially with children. Maybe a stun gun. Could you get such a thing? Or pepper mace? She would be careful. Don wouldn’t like it, but maybe she wouldn’t tell him until it was over.

Of course, it was unlikely that she could get all her sleuthing done while the children were in school. What if she needed to tail someone in the evening? There were a couple of teenagers in town that Stephanie had hired in the past and they could babysit after school and on weekends. Don was usually home in the evening – but what would she tell him? She supposed she could always invent marital problems for some of her friends (and for some of them invention would not even be necessary) and claim they needed to have a cup of coffee with her and to sob on her shoulder. She could even warn them ahead of time in case they ran into Don. Stephanie had never really lied to Don before (well, discounting the price on that pair of earrings and the cup of coffee with an old boyfriend who was in town); would this count? Her mind raced. Maybe she should tell him, but if she did he would probably stop her and this was something she really wanted to do. Finally, something she as excited about. She eyed the bulging back pocket of the man on the floor and was about to reach for it when she heard a door slam upstairs. She backed up until she was three or four yards from the body.

A large police officer, carrying nothing but his dangling sunglasses, stepped off the stair case, nodded to Stephanie and walked over to the body on the floor. Stephanie could not help but notice how pink his face was – not the pink of youth but rather of too much blood being pushed into overused vessels – and how he was not only overweight, but had a pronounced hitch to his walk. Stephanie was surprised that there was no one behind him. He had apparently come alone. It was a good thing that there was no sign of whoever was responsible for the body on the floor, because this guy did not look capable of chasing anyone except, perhaps, from the front seat of a Crown Victoria. The man clapped his hands together and turned to face her.

“Are you the one who called this in?”

Stephanie nodded.

The officer looked back at the man for a minute and then took off his gloves and reached down and put enough pressure on the back of the prone man’s neck to turn the pale bearded face toward them. This made Stephanie start sweating.

“He’s cold.” Stephanie did not know why she said this. The officer certainly knew that by now.

“That’s because he’s dead, ma’am. Though we got an ambulance coming and those guys will make sure.” He leaned over and took a long look at the face and then extracted the wallet from the bulging pocket.
“Who is it?” Stephanie moved forward wanting a look at the ID that the policeman was pulling out of the bruised brown wallet.

The officer answered without even consulting the driver’s license in his hands. “It’s Jeff Bates. He’s the head of the Grange – takes care of the building. I guess that’s the honor you get when you’re president of the Grange – you get to try to keep this monstrosity going.”

“Do you think he was murdered? Who would have done this?” Stephanie moved closer.

The cop looked hard at Stephanie and then wiped a thick hand over his face as if he was trying to hide his expression. “I think he probably came over to do some work – it was cold last weekend and the pipes are always freezing up. He’s had a couple of heart attacks before. Looks like he had another one and just died here. Doubt whether he even carries a cell phone and his wife left him a couple of years ago, so there wouldn’t be anyone looking for him. Kind of sad. And I don’t know who will take care of the Grange now that he’s gone. Some church group tried to buy it a few years ago, but Jeff turned them down cold and I doubt anyone wants it at this point.” He looked at her a little harder and fished a small pad out of a pocket inside his jacket and seemed to be searching vainly in his outer pockets for something to write with.

“What are you doing here anyway?”

Stephanie found herself wishing she wasn’t so shabbily dressed – fleece pants topped with a thick turtleneck and her thick brown hair held severely back with one of Sally’s scrunchies – but bread-making was a dusty business and the Grange was cold. Nevertheless, she felt at a disadvantage with this man in his expanse of black uniform.

While Stephanie was explaining about the bread-making, both Linda and the EMT’s arrived. The EMT’s confirmed that there was no point in working on Jeff Bates, but insisted on calling the coroner, who was also the only physician in town and whose office was right around the corner. While they waited for him, they called in to the office and reported on the situation. “Nonresponsive white male about sixty years of age. Waiting for the doc.”

The “doc” soon came in, looking like he had been in the middle of office hours, dressed in a white lab coat under his khaki parka and wearing a stethoscope. He looked at the man on the floor for two or three minutes, scanned the basement for one more minute, completely ignored Stephanie and Linda, and told the EMT’s they could take the body away. The policeman – whose name turned out to be Richard Dusik – walked the doctor out to his car and returned within a couple of minutes.
Stephanie watched the EMT’s get ready to move the body. She was surprised that no one was taking any pictures. Before she could stop herself she asked loudly, “Will there be an autopsy?”

The EMT’s were positioning limbs on the stretcher and looked confused at this question from a bystander. “Are you a relative?” one of them asked Stephanie, tucking a loose forearm back into the web holding what used to be Jeff Bates. It was the hand with the thin wedding band.

“No, just interested. Since I was the one who found him.”

“Ah well yah, since no one was here, but it looks straight-forward. Poor guy. At least it was cold – this guy has been here for a while. Rigor has come and gone. Anyone notified the family?”

Officer Dusik said he didn’t know if there were any kids, but he knew how to get in touch with the ex-wife. He would call her and find out who should be notified. The EMT’s nodded as if there was no hurry, and went back to removing the remains of Jeff Bates from the Grange. Linda and Officer Dusik decided that it would be best to cancel bread-making. Besides, there was apparently no heat and Linda had tested the water and determined that the pipes were indeed frozen, all of which seemed to validate Officer Dusik’s guess as to why Jeff Bates was in the building.

Stephanie walked out of the building with Linda and watched them load the ambulance.

“Are you ok?” asked Linda. “That must have been nasty, finding him there. Sorry I was late – otherwise I would have been the one. I knew Jeff – he’s the one I arrange use of the building with. Couldn’t tell you much about him though. Very quiet.”

Even quieter now, thought Stephanie, and gave her brain another slap for undignified joking in the face of tragedy.

“I’m fine.” But she was not fine. What Stephanie simultaneously realized was that she was both disappointed and a little ashamed at her disappointment. Nevertheless, as she loaded her unused bread-making paraphernalia back through the hatch of her SUV, she determined to watch the news in case the autopsy revealed anything strange, and to look for the cause of death and other essential facts about Mr. Bates in his obituary. As she sat in her car watching Linda call the other members of the co-op on her cell phone, Stephanie wondered if you could pull up death certificates on the internet. She wondered who would arrange the funeral and who Jeff Bates’ heirs were. Stephanie wondered what would happen to the Grange building, which she suddenly felt a sentimental attachment to. She wondered again about what counted as an “essential” and what was relegated to the “non-essentials.” Stephanie wondered if her family would even notice that there was no fresh bread for dinner. She wondered where the co-op would make bread if the Grange were sold. And she wondered what on earth she was going to do with herself for the next couple of years.