Solitary - 8. Chapter 8
“The thing is,” Eliot Felton began, “I inherited this house from my Aunt Maura. I know, looking around, that seems pretty good, but it didn’t look like this when I got it. In fact, the only reason I got it at eighteen is no one else in our family wanted it – and we have a very large family.”
“A fixer-upper,” Don commented. He and Elena were sitting in Eliot Felton’s living room, being crawled over by his two young kids. He’d already explained that his wife was at work.
“That doesn’t mean that I don’t work,” he’d added. “I’m a contractor – another gift from Aunt Maura – so I’m never short for carpentry jobs. But I also play cards.”
He stopped at that, so Elena had to ask, “For money?”
Eliot Felton was non-committal. “Some. Not a lot. Not so much I’d bet my living on it. But enough that if I started putting it away in a college fund now, these kids would never have to worry – if they wanted to go to college. I didn’t, which is another reason I got this house – my family didn’t know what to do with me.”
“What does this have to do with the watch?” Elena also had to ask.
“I’m getting there,” Eliot Felton assured them with a smile. “But I gotta give you the whole picture.”
They said they’d be patient.
“So there I am, this eighteen year old...” he glanced at his kids, “...mess-up, who barely made it out of high school. I could’ve gone to community college, but that would’ve been a waste ‘cause I really didn’t care. And my parents weren’t dumb enough to pay for some lousy, overpriced junior college I just would’ve flunked out of. And Aunt Maura had just died, and we suddenly had this house that no one had been in for the past who-knew-how-many years – she normally saw us at other people’s houses for holidays and family gatherings. And when she needed a lift home, she always had us drop her in her driveway. ‘No, no, this is just fine,’ she’d say, ‘you’ve already come all this way – there’s no reason to get out of your car.’ Of course, after she died, and Aunt Carole had to fight her way into the mess with the police on a wellness check, we realized why none of us had been inside the place since grandpa died. Aunt Maura had taken care of him for years and then had continued living in the house.”
“I take it she was a bad housekeeper,” Don understated.
“A slob. A pig. A huge time hoarder.” He grinned and pointed through an open arch toward the dining room. “That was solid – a floor-to-ceiling mess like most of the rooms and hallways were. The basement was like that, too, except wet and moldy. And she hadn’t used the upstairs since who-knew-when, so the attic was out of reach. And once we finally got in there, many months later, it was the same, only covered with bird... stuff.” His tickled his daughter to distract her from bothering Don.
“Where did she get all the junk?” Elena asked.
“Well, my great-grandparents built this house and raised their kids here. And then after my great-grandfather died, and my grandmother unexpectedly followed him, my grandfather moved in to take care of his mother – my great-grandmother. And then after she died, my Aunt Maura, who was between marriages – she married two or three happy drunks who died younger than they might have – moved in to take care of my grandfather – her father.”
“I got lost somewhere,” Don had to admit.
Eliot Felton laughed. “Let’s just say that a mess of old people took care of a mess of older people, and when Aunt Maura died, everything that anyone had ever touched, plus everything she’d just somehow compulsively acquired, was stuffed into this house. And though the outside looked fine – clean and painted, with the grass always mowed – the inside was hysterical. And after Aunt Maura’s funeral, when all the uncles and aunts and anyone who was curious, like us kids, gathered here and tried to force our ways down the narrow path Aunt Maura had left from the front door to the couch where she slept, to the toilet and sink off the kitchen... well, you get the idea. We were all finally back on the front lawn, gasping for clean air and laughing uproariously at what had been in front of us for years and no one noticed.”
“She didn’t look like a street person?” Elena questioned.
“No – or smell like one, either. It’s not that she didn’t have money – or a will – and technically, she left the house to her brothers and sisters. And she had a car and would drive short distances to the grocery and the laundromat. So we’re guessing she kept some clean clothes in her car, and there was others hanging in plastic bags on nails in the garage, and she changed when she went to see people or go shopping.”
“Amazing,” said Don.
“Yeah.” And Eliot Felton grinned again. “So after we all ended up on the lawn, we went back to Uncle Marty’s house – and a half-dozen people who hadn’t been with us joined us – and we talked.”
He paused to stop his younger child, a boy who may have been two, from trying to squeeze onto the lower shelf of the coffee table, stretching after a stuffed rabbit.
“Well, people started talking about money,” he went on, “and how much it was gonna take to clean the place out, and fix it up, and repair all the damage, and finally remodel it after all these years, and get rid of things like the mold, and the bird... poop, and stuff we didn’t even know about yet, and they decided it wasn’t worth it. They claimed they’d never get all or even any of their money back, and it wasn’t like any of them felt sentimental about the house though the four of them on my dad’s side had grown up there. And just when they were going to walk away and let the city condemn the wreck and tear it down, I had an idea.” He grinned again. “I said, ‘Give me the summer.’ I said, ‘Give me the summer and as many dumpsters as I need, and I’ll get a friend or two, and we’ll see what we can do about cleaning the place out. You don’t even have to pay us. I’ll take care of my friends, and this’ll be our summer job. And after Labor Day – or maybe sooner – when you can walk through the place, you can decide what you really have.’”
“What was in it for you?” Elena asked, and Eliot Felton laughed.
“Well, I told you I’d just barely graduated, and to say that I didn’t have any plans is so far off base you’re not even in the right season. And my parents wanted me to get a job and start paying for rent and food – not ‘cause they needed the money but ‘cause it was supposed to develop responsibility. And I didn’t want to start working for someone when I really wanted to goof off, and drink, and...” he looked at his kids, ‘...mess around, and play cards.”
“And how were you planning to get the work done?” Don asked. “And pay your friends?”
“Well, I figured we could throw stuff out for a couple hours every afternoon, and I’d support us all by playing cards.”
“You were going to bet against them?” Elena wondered.
“No – I played for real money – with adults. I started doing that when I was ten or eleven, against my dad’s friends. It was a joke at first. I used to watch them, and maybe once or twice a game, he’d let me sit in while he did a beer or food run. But then I started getting good and began playing against my friends. Then against older guys at our high school, and then around Springfield and the ‘burbs.”
“You were gambling?” Don marveled.
Eliot Felton smiled. “Just small time – probably nothing hugely illegal. I was never worried so never checked.”
Don laughed. “Yeah – you were underage and gambling. And playing against adults. All illegal.”
Eliot Felton grinned. “Like I told you, I was never big on reading.”
“Still, that’s in the past,” Elena pushed on. “Tell us about the watch.”
“Almost.” He held up his hand. “Anyway, by the end of the summer, the house was fairly empty. And while we still didn’t know how we were going to deal with the mold in the basement and the poop in the attic, at least my aunts and uncles knew what they had. And though the place didn’t have any heat or hot water and just had that one toilet running, my friend Pete and I convinced my dad and mom – and all our other relatives – to let us go on for a couple more months. Then – maybe – they could consider talking with a contractor.” He grinned. “And what was in it for us? Well, as soon as we had the living room and one small bathroom clear, we’d started moving in – so we had a party house all summer.”
“You and your friends?” Don posed.
“Me... and Pete... and anyone who knew us – or knew any of our friends, or just happened to wander by our almost always open front door. And we kept things quiet and under control because mostly I wanted a place to play cards every night. Because that’s how I was making our money.”
“At least, you were eighteen by then,” Elena joked.
“And then...” he shrugged, “ ...things just kept going. We learned how to get rid of all the mold in the basement without killing ourselves, and the same thing about the bird stuff. And we got a less beat up water heater and figured out how to connect that and fix the junky furnace so it wouldn’t asphyxiate us. And by late October, Pete and I could each peg a bedroom, so we weren’t sleeping on mattresses on the living room floor. And I was pulling in a couple hundred bucks a week over the couple hundred I was paying him, so we were happy and loose and everything was fine.”
“And the watch?” Elena reminded him.
“That was just one of many things that turned up as we cleaned out the house and bargained with my relatives. Some things – like dishes and silverware – my aunts wanted, and other things my dad and uncles bartered over. Anything soft had to be trashed, but some of the other furniture was OK – like the dining table which was solid for cards, once we put plywood over the sagging seats. And once we scrubbed the refrigerator and stove with ammonia, it was a pretty cush way to live – I mean, how many eighteen-year-olds have their own houses for free?”
“What else did you find besides the watch?” Don asked.
“Nothing valuable, if that’s what you mean. And the watch isn’t really worth much, but once we figured out it had to be my great-granddad’s, and none of my uncles were gonna do anything besides stash it in a jewelry box, I traded for it. I wouldn’t wear it when I was working – it would get wrecked – but I did when I was playing cards. Not ‘cause it was lucky – ‘cause I really don’t believe in that sort of thing. But it made me feel like an adult when I was playing with thirty and forty years old.”
“So you were still playing against older guys?”
“Yeah – sometimes my dad’s friends. ‘Cause they had the money.”
“Don’t tell us about money,” Don kidded. “You’ll be better off.”
“OK – I paid Pete in matches. All right?”
And they all laughed.
“Anyway, it just went on from there. We emptied the place and started fixing it up. And we taught ourselves how to do that and hired people who knew how to do it right and show us when we fu... scr... loused up. And it took a couple of years, but we slowly became decent contractors and started working on jobs outside this. And that made money, and I didn’t have to pay Pete and play Poker every night if I didn’t want to. That let me pick my games and even play ones I didn’t mind losing with my friends, just so we’d always have people around.”
“And the watch?” Elena now insisted.
“It got stolen.”
“That’s what your cousin said. But how?”
As before, Eliot Felton laughed. “Well, this was already a couple of years later.” He seemed to think. “Four years, according to what’s printed on that photo. By that time, the place looked pretty much like a house, but it was furnished with things we rescued from Aunt Maura or picked up off the streets.” He smiled. “Sometimes, friends would show up at a party with an end table or lamp they’d pulled off someone’s sidewalk.” He detoured to explain. “Around here, if you don’t want something, you give your neighbors first crack at it. Then, if no one’s interested, you drop it at the Salvation Army.”
“But you were still wearing the watch?”
Eliot Felton gestured more or less. “It’s not really the best way to tell time, and it has to keep being wound. And sometimes, I just forgot to put it on in the evenings. So it spent a lot of time where it would’ve if my dad or one of my uncles’d taken it – in my jewelry box.”
“Where was that?”
“Well, it wasn’t really a jewelry box. It was one of those metal cash boxes you see in a church or at a school, with the plastic tray and a dinky lock. I’m not even sure where I got it – maybe from this house – and I know I never had the key. Plus, it got stashed in various places at various times. The top of my closet. My night table, once I had one. My bureau or desk – as I said, we kept getting more furniture. So the watch might’ve been in my bedroom when it went.”
“You can’t remember?”
He grinned. “Isn’t that close enough? To be honest, I didn’t even know it was gone till cousin Ronnie called.”
“That’s the guy we met earlier?” Don asked.
“Yeah – Ron. He called and said something like, ‘Hey, you dumbf... dumb goof.’” He tousled his daughter’s hair. “‘I’ve got your watch. Why’d you go and bet it?’ “And I had to say something like, ‘Yeah... well... sure... pretty stupid of me.’ Then I hustled down there and gave him what he’d put out for it.” He smiled again. “Of course, it didn’t take long for the real story to come out, and after that, Pete and I started being very careful.”
“What else was in the box?”
Eliot Felton tickled his daughter for a moment while absently saying, “Oh, you know – stuff.”
“Where did you keep your money?” Elena questioned.
“From contracting? The bank – where else? – in a business account. We ran that legit, and each of us had a personal account and went to H&R Block every March and paid our taxes.”
“And your Poker money?”
He just grinned. “Yeah, well...”
“How much did you lose?”
“I don’t honestly know,” he admitted, looking straight at them.
“Can you guess?”
“Not really. It was bills and coins – often all loose, though I rolled and bundled some occasionally – had the tubes and the wrappers. But cards was always play money for us. For when Pete and I – or any of the girls who were always around the place – needed something. Food. Beer. Other party supplies. That’s how we paid for things, and any one of us could just go in and help ourselves – the important thing was to keep a game going.” He summarized. “Build things during the days. Fix up the house. Work hard. Then party and play Poker at night.”
“A nice life.”
Eliot Felton didn’t seem so sure. “As long as you can keep it up.” He shrugged. “But it turned out I’m a marrying man and so is Pete. So it ended.”
“But some money was taken with your watch?” Elena pushed on.
“And that’s what you’re after now?” Don followed. “Why you want to find this woman?”
Eliot Felton laughed and grinned broadly. “Heck, it’s not like I’m going to chase her down or threaten her or anything like that. I’m not that kind of guy, and you can ask anyone I know. We’re not even sure she took the money. She was one of a lot of people who came through the house – at least, we think she was. Pete and I started trying to work that out after Ronnie got my watch back.”
“You didn’t notice the money was gone before?”
“Not really – ‘cause I kinda threw money everywhere. I know that sounds stupid. But it was in my desk. My bureau. Sometimes, I just left it overnight in my jeans – if I’d been out playing a game. Plus, there was money in a kitchen drawer and the glove compartment of my truck. If it wasn’t contracting money, it didn’t have to be tracked with receipts and all. So it took Ronnie’s ‘Heads up!’ to let us know something was missing.”
“And you really have no idea how much?”
He shook his head.
“Can you guess?”
Eliot Felton hesitated, then seemed way beyond embarrassed. “Twenty grand,” he mumbled.
“Whoa!” Don was astonished.
“Yeah.” His palms were over his eyes. “It was really dumb of me to be keeping it in the house, and you bet I never did that again. First, I started putting it in a safe deposit box, then I began declaring it as ‘Extra income’ – like tips – and started paying taxes on it. So I was completely legit before I got married.”
“Other than the gambling,” Elena joked. “And I had no idea you were making so much.”
Eliot Felton shrugged. “It didn’t come all at once. It built up over several years. But when Pete and I thought back, we figured it had to be around that. As I said, some of it was neatly bundled.”
“And your only connection to it was the watch?” Don asked.
“Probably. Again, for all we know, the girl had nothing to do with the stealing. The story she told Ronnie might’ve been true – her boyfriend could’ve given her the watch and asked her to sell it ‘cause she’d been in the pawnshop before. It just sounded like a crock to us.”
Elena and Don waited.
“And what were you planning to do now that you’ve found her?” Elena resumed.
“We haven’t really,” Eliot Felton defended. “There was no follow-up on the news, so we mainly had her name – the one she gave Ronnie years ago was garbage. And from her name, we were able to search out the high school yearbook and where she lived or lives. Plus, the TV report told us where she worked. But since she was stabbed, we didn’t even know if she was still alive. We figured that might be why the news stopped. And even if she was OK, we didn’t know if she’d remember who she’d been out with that night eight years ago. And she’s a cook in a nursing home, for god’s sake – that doesn’t take more brains than being a contractor.” He laughed at himself. “And who knows what kinds of drugs she’s been on or was using then? I’ve never risked more than polite drinking ‘cause I needed my head clear for cards.”
“But there were drugs in the house?” Elena asked.
Eliot Felton downplayed them. “Easy stuff – mostly pot. Most of my friends drink beer and some of the women light wine. But we’re family folks – we don’t have the taste for hard liquor or drugs. Even by high school, we thought of ourselves as the kind of people who were gonna get married and own houses and raise kids.”
“And play Poker,” Don reminded him.
“Pretty small time. I tried playing in a tournament once and was lucky to come back with my clothes.”
“And your watch,” Elena said.
Eliot Felton grinned. “Oh, yeah. I’ve still got that.”
You probably have a crazy and hectic schedule and find it hard to keep up with everything going on. We get it, because we feel it too. Signing up here is a great way to keep in touch and find something relaxing to read when you get a few moments to spare.
Create an account or sign in to comment
You need to be a member in order to leave a comment
Create an account
Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!Register a new account
Already have an account? Sign in here.Sign In Now