Monday, October 29, 2012

Wake Up Call

On September 2, 2006, my 20-pound cat “Mini” leapt off the bed as the telephone jangled loudly. Her feet thumped across the oak floor as she ran to the far end of the house. I opened my eyes. My other cat, a 12-pounder named “Maxi,” remained on the bed, but he was staring at me with an annoyed expression. I knew how he felt.

The face of the digital clock was turned away from me, but by the light outside the window, I knew it couldn’t be much later than 5 o’clock in the morning. I reached over and unplugged the wire from the telephone. I still could hear the phone in the kitchen, but the rings were muffled enough to ignore.

I lived alone. I was divorced. No kids. No Significant Other. My parents had died several years earlier, a year apart from each other. My sister had died of lymphoma in 1995. The call couldn’t possibly be from someone who was my responsibility. Whatever anyone wanted to say to me at 5 a.m. could wait.

Besides, I assumed the caller was either my ex-wife Sandy or her boyfriend Derek. Sandy and I had divorced 5 years earlier, but remained on speaking terms. For the past several months, after years of relative sobriety, she once again had sunk into substance abuse and was apt to call at any time of the day or night. There was nothing I wanted to discuss with her at 5 a.m. Derek, a musician who was equally insensible of the clock, liked to bemoan his hopeless love affair to anyone he thought might listen, including, sometimes, me. I didn’t want to hear any more about this either. I put my head on my pillow and dozed off again.

My next conscious moment was when Maxi tapped my face with a paw. I opened an eye. The room was brighter. Black with a white spot on his chest, Maxi always wanted out in the morning. I got up and followed him to the back door. The kitchen clock read 7:30. As the door shut after the Maxi, I heard a squeak behind me. Mini didn’t want out. As usual, she wanted to be fed.

While I dumped a can of 9-Lives tuna into the cat dish, the kitchen phone rang. I picked it up on the fifth ring.

“Hey, this is Ellis!” the caller shouted.


Sandy’s friend. I’m calling from Derek’s house. You gotta get down here! It’s an emergency!”

“What emergency?” I asked skeptically. I was sure the word didn’t apply. Neither Sandy nor Derek was my problem.

I remembered Ellis, though. I had met him briefly in early August after Sandy had called me in the middle of the night from East Orange while she was being arrested. It was neither her first nor her last encounter with the police after falling off the wagon. She wanted me me to pick up Keanu, her big Bernese Mountain Dog, which was in her car with her. Ellis, a soft-spoken, tall, muscular, 30-ish black man who was a friend of Derek, also had been in the car with her. (I don’t know and didn’t ask where Derek was.) The police had nothing on which to hold Ellis, who lived nearby, so he walked Keanu along the sidewalk until I arrived to pick up the dog. I returned Keanu when Sandy was released.

“It’s Sandy, man! They set the place on fire!” Ellis shouted over the phone.

“Who? What place?”

“Her apartment!”

Sandy had rented an apartment in Newark in July.

“Is she OK?” I asked.

“She’s dead, man!”

“Oh crap.”

“You gotta get down here. She’s probably at the university hospital.”

“I thought you said she was dead.”

“I don’t know for sure. The house was on fire. I ran over and asked a fireman if a white woman was in there. He said no, but maybe he just didn’t know. Her truck is parked on the street and she doesn’t answer her phone."

“OK, I’ll go the hospital”

“Pick me up. I’m at Derek’s.”

“OK, I’ll pick up you and Derek.”

“Just me. Derek’s in jail.”


“Beats me. Lucky for him, though. He probably would have been in the fire, too.”

“Yeah. I’ll be there in an hour.”

I decided that if I was headed toward a crime scene, it would be wise to bring company. I dialed my friend Ken. Ken answered groggily.

“Ken, I just got a call. Sandy may have died last night. I’m going to Newark to check the hospital.”

“Damn. Sorry, Rich. Would you like some company?”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m calling. I would appreciate it.”

“Pick me up on the way.”

“Will do.”

A large part of me rejected the possibility that anything catastrophic had happened to Sandy. It was out of character. Sandy had skipped along the edge of cliffs for most of her life, but always walked away safely. I regarded her as indestructible. I even had made a bad joke only two days earlier to my friend Sheryl which I now regretted. I had said, “After a nuclear war, the only survivors will be cockroaches and Sandy.”

Ken met me in the parking lot of the apartment complex where he lived in Parsippany. We headed to Derek’s house.

Derek’s father opened the door of his homey Cape on a suburban street in Union. He shook his head and waved us inside. Ellis sat in an easy chair in the living room.

“Why is Derek in jail?” I asked.

“He missed a court date,” his father said.

Ellis, Ken, and I got into my Jeep Cherokee and headed to the hospital. I parked on the street and we walked to a corner entrance.

The woman at the reception desk had no information about Sandra. Instead, another woman in a security guard uniform told us to go to the police station next to the Essex County Courthouse.

The police station in Newark is an old building straight out of Barney Miller. The sergeant at the front desk directed us up to the third floor.

“Speak to a Detective Muhammad,” he said.

As the elevator doors opened onto the third floor, Ken smiled at the traffic signs in the hallway. One large arrow said “Robberies” and another pointing the opposite way said “Homicides.”

“Life in Newark,” Ken said, and he snapped a picture of the signs with his cell phone.

I asked a passing officer where to find Detective Muhammad. He pointed in the “Homicides” direction. This wasn’t looking good.

**** **** **** **** ****

A few days after the unwelcome wake-up call, I walked down the dark aisle of yet another horse barn. The clapping of my shoes on the concrete floor echoed inside. In the fourth stall on the right stood a 15 hand bay facing away from me.

“Hey Buddy!” I called to him.

The horse huffed in recognition and came to the door to have his nose petted. Buddy Love was Sandy’s personal horse. Six years earlier he had lived in our back yard. I didn’t see much of him after the divorce, but he still knew who I was.

Sandy had mentioned to me a few months earlier that she had moved her horse to a barn in Montville. The question was where. Montville is a pretty big place. There was little choice but methodically to check one stable after another in order to find him. On this occasion, method succeeded.

There were two barns on this property. I left Buddy and checked the other barn, hoping to find the owner or manager. I encountered a young woman who was neither, but who gave me the owner’s number.

“Buddy Love belonged to my ex, Sandra. She was killed the other day,” I explained.

“I know. We read about it in the papers,” she said. “Actually, Buddy is the barn owner’s horse, because Sandra hasn’t paid her board in months.”

“I see. Well, I’ll still talk to her.”

Sandy had given riding lessons until her life began to spiral down at the end of 2005. Tim, the father of two of Sandy’s former students, had called me after reading about the shooting, and said he was interested in Buddy if I knew where he was.

As it turned out, the barn owner was willing to sell Buddy to him for the amount of the back expenses. Buddy Love, at least, found contentment and green pastures.

Excerpt New York Times 9/17/2006: “Authorities in Newark, piecing together the events that led to a triple homicide in the Vailsburg neighborhood over Labor Day weekend, have arrested one of the three suspects.”