Although I did not accompany Charlie King on this investigation, when he came back, his descriptions of what he saw and did were so vivid that I felt as if I’d been with him the whole time. That I had never heard of his destination, and that Charlie, a native New Yorker, had never been there, was not really unusual, since it is as remote as it is quirky.
Drive East on the Belt Parkway out of Brooklyn.
Continue across the Whitestone Bridge to the Hutchinson River Parkway. Proceed past Co-Op City, and then look for signs to the Pelham Bay Nature Center. Continue on Shore Road until you get to a Lionel Train Set sort of a bridge bearing the sign: WELCOME TO CITY ISLAND. SEAPORT OF THE BRONX
Or at least Charlie was the day that he responded to the frantic pleas of a woman who was referred to him by Chief Michael Doyle of the New York City Fire Department. Doyle was also a personal friend.
Chief Doyle said, “Talk to this lady, please, Charlie. Her name is Bridget Kavanagh, and her son Ryan was a fireman. Twenty-two years old. Just a kid. He was asphyxiated in a fire in her house, and she isn’t happy about the fire marshal report. She’s out of her mind with grief, and thinks everyone is against her. A conspiracy. You aren’t going to come up with anything different, but you’re an outsider. Maybe she’ll listen to you.”
The chief said that the marshal’s office would fax Charlie the fire report as well as the report issued by the Department of Fire Investigation, with the fire marshal’s conclusion about the origin and cause of the fire.
The fire scene itself, Chief Doyle said, was preserved, and Charlie would be able to inspect it exactly as it was after the firemen stowed their gear and drove away. Of course, the body had been removed, but the FDNY photographer had documented it in place, and would overnight his pictures to our office as well.
Two days after agreeing to the chief’s request, Charlie drove across the “Lionel Train Set” bridge to a fishing village that could have been painted by Norman Rockwell in the 1950s, but, incredibly and implausibly, is situated on the East Coast of one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. Once there, it is literally impossible to believe that you are still in New York City.
Everywhere you look are boats, docks, and stores with signs alluding to whaling, sailing, and fishing. A small community with a population barely over 4,000, it has its own library and fire house, and its main street is dotted with bars and restaurants with names like Johnny’s Reef and Crab Shanty. There are also a white steepled church, a pretty cemetery overlooking Long Island Sound, and an intimate park with sculptures of fat happy sea lions flopping through the grass.
Despite its many tourist attractions, this small island city is only a mile-and-a-half long – north to south – with a few dozen side streets traversing the island’s half-mile width. Most of these streets are lined with modest 19th and 20th century houses surrounded by picket fences and homey, tree-covered lawns. They all dead-end at a shore or a beach.
It was in one of these homes – a quaint cottage with green shutters and a small front porch – that a fire had occurred the week before. The sides and tops of the boarded-over windows were blackened by smoke and soot. The roof was a fire-ravaged gaping scar.
Waiting for Charlie in the front yard was a small middle-aged woman with a round face, tear stained cheeks, and trembling hands.
Charlie introduced himself, and said, “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Kavanagh.”
She nodded curtly, clutched a handkerchief that seemed to come out of nowhere, and said, “Thank you for coming, Mr. King. I’m sure you’ll find that the fire department report is wrong. I’ll wait for you out here.”
Well, Charlie didn’t want to go inside, but he did. He examined the small bedroom where Ryan Kavanagh had grown up, lived, and died. Regretfully, he concluded that the fire marshals were right. The burn patterns in the bed, the bedclothes, the protected areas on the nightstand where a shot glass and wine bottle had been ... they all pointed in one and only one direction.
“Smoking Carelessness. Alcohol contributory.”
The handsome young fireman, while smoking in bed, had drunk himself unconscious, and much as Charlie wanted to, he could not rewrite the way that he died.
He left the grieving mother with a slight shake of his head, but he said nothing. She closed her eyes, pursed her lips, turned, and walked away.
After Charlie reported his findings to Chief Doyle, I was reminded of a scene from A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, by Betty Smith. In it, Katie Nolan has just found out that her husband, beloved and irresponsible Johnny Nolan, has died. Confronting the doctor who is writing out the death certificate, she asks:
“What are you writing down there – what he died from, I mean.”
“Acute alcoholism and pneumonia.”
“They said he died of pneumonia.”
“That was the direct cause of death. But this acute alcoholism was a definite contributing factor; probably the main cause of death, if you wish the truth.”
“I don’t want you to write down,” said Katie slowly and steadily, “that he died from drinking too much. Write that he died of pneumonia alone.”
“Madam, I have to state the entire truth.”
“He’s dead. What can it mean to you what he died of?”
“The law requires...”
“Look,” said Katie. “I got two nice children. They’re going to grow up to amount to something. It isn’t their fault that their father ... that he died from what you said. It would mean a lot to me if I could tell them that their father died of pneumonia alone...”
“All right,” he conceded. “I’ll do it...” He wrote down ‘pneumonia’ in the blank after ‘Cause of death.’
And it was nowhere on record that John Nolan had died a drunkard.
Johnny Nolan ... a beloved fictional character from Brooklyn.
Ryan Kavanagh ... a beloved rookie firefighter from City Island.
Art imitating life?
Or life imitating art?
Either way, a terrible heartbreak and a terrible way to die.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com