In the Frank Nagler mysteries, reporter Jimmy Dawson, through his online newspaper columns, acts as a Greek chorus, filling in the back story.
In this scene from the work-in-progress, THE WEIGHT OF LIVING, Dawson uses a visit to a former mill that is adjacent to Leonard’s bookstore as a way to question where Ironton, N.J. is headed.
It is also a scene that also was fun to write because I could focus on how language sounds.
But a mystery is a zero-sum game. Where there is an introduction, there must be a resolution.
This, at least, is the introduction:
Can you make music from an old building?
Are the hammer strokes just metal on metal or are they the chimes where history and the future meet in one square corner joint?
The shells of old buildings flank Leonard’s bookstore like ghosts with gray eyes, silent shades, voices stilled.
We ventured in, Dom, Del and me, emissaries from the present willing to greet the past.
What was said in that third floor meeting room when the plant’s production was planned; what whispered gossip slyly swirled among the office staff?
“Look at all this stuff,” exclaimed Dominique, the youthful crew chief. “They just left it here.”
His boss, Delvin Williams, just smiled. “Just didn’t need it. The mill closed down, the workers took their tools and what else the could carry, the secretaries took their belongings, and maybe the desk flowers and the boss just locked the doors.”
“And they left silence,” I said. “Silence nailed behind plywood frames.”
“Hey, Jimmy, what’s in these old cabinets?” Dom asked, pulling a handful of old paper files.
I looked over his shoulder. Ledgers, corporate histories on faded green lined paper, precise columns of numbers, unreadable notes in the margins; with enough of them we could see the creation, success and failure of this old plant, see its mathematical rise and fall; we could just not hear the joyful success or the harsh voices that debated its fate, see the anguish when that last decision was made, the order given. The voices live in the dust.
“This needs to be saved,” said Del Williams. “Have some guys box this stuff up. Maybe the historical society would want it.”
“Got it, man,” Dom replied. “This is the place, you know. I think my granddad worked here and a couple of uncles. This is the place….”
Then with his head bobbing, one foot tapping and his hands knocking out syncopation, Dom began:
“This is the place, the place of the mas-ter.
This is the place, the place that mat-tered.
Tired fingers moldin’, sweaty brows leanin’
Turnin’ rock into iron and iron into bread.
This is the place where we all gathered
This is the place where the tide is turnin’
The ghosts be talkin’ and we be listenin’
Raisin’ the dead, knowin’ the iron and the bread….”
The Dom stopped and shrugged.
“Work on it later.”
Del just smiled and grabbed the boy’s shoulder, “Cool, man.”
Dom just nodded. “We can make something of this old wreck.”
“I think you already have.”
Del, Dom and I turned to face the open door, where Leonard and Calista Knox stood grinning.
“I knew this old place had rhythm,” she said.
“It’s more than that,” Leonard said. “It’s a soul. I used to hear it. I’d lie awake at night. Imagine the pounding of metal presses, the grinding of sander and wheel, the shouts of workers. Feel the hiss as the iron was quenched, the clatter of the loading on trucks, the whine of the rail whistle as a load was hauled away.”
“Them old sounds ain’t goin’ way,” Del said. They livin’ in the walls, and I believe they just talked to our young man, here.”
“Know what I hear?” Calista asked. “I hear the voices of poets rising to replace the industrial crunch; to be or not to be, Lear’s anquish, Ahab’s wail and Pooh’s laughter. All those voices leaking out of the walls.”
After a moment, we all laughed and Leonard said, “Big dreams, here,” and nodding to Del and Dom, “and a lot of work to do.”
Del just smiled. “Yeah, Lenny.”
Later, sitting in my car as I watched the day’s work end, I realized I had answered my own question.
The music of the old mill didn’t end, just changed. The crash of a sledge on steel was replaced by the rat-a-tat of a nail gun fixing siding, the shouted queries and answers from workers on the open mill floor replaced by a hum of youthful voices singing snatches of song or trading rap lines – “Who say? They say. Who say? We say.”
This is a city that has lost its way.
Maybe that happened because we stopped listening to the jazz of a working life, stopped listening to the lessons pinned behind old boarded-up windows; the screech of that first nail being pulled out of a board could be the clarinet that opens Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or the thunder of Beethoven’s Fifth, or the sound of our beginning.
The Frank Nagler mysteries – “The Swamps of Jersey’’ and “A Game Called Dead” are available at the following New Jersey book stores:
Bobby’s News and Gifts, 618 Main Street, Boonton.
The Clinton Book Shop, 12 E. Main Street, Clinton. http://www.clintonbookshop.com/
Sparta Books, 29 Theatre Center, Sparta. http://www.spartabooks.com/
For information on independent book sellers visit, http://www.indiebound.org/
The books are also available at the at the following libraries: Bernardsville Public Library; The Hunterdon County Public Library; Mount Olive Public Library; Phillipsburg; Warren County, Franklin branch; Mount Arlington; Wharton; Dover; Hackettstown; Clark; Morris County Library; Somerset County Public Library System, and the Ramsey library, as part of the Bergen County Cooperative Library System.