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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Leap Before You Look: Local Author’s Journey to "Cadaver Blues"

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J.E. Fishman
J.E. Fishman
J.E. Fishman is the author of "Primacy: A Thriller," which Kirkus book reviews called "more fun than a barrel of overgrown monkeys," "Cadaver Blues: A Phuoc Goldberg Fiasco," and the forthcoming thriller, "The Dark Pool." He divides his time between Chadds Ford, PA, and New York City. Please visit his website at http://www.jefishman.com.

Photo by Karen Gowen

Town Square Delaware is thrilled to share excerpts from local author J. E. Fishman’s latest novel, “Cadaver Blues.” Below is an introduction penned by the author and the first of three weekly installments. If, like us, you’re already hooked, pick up your copy at Amazon.

Like the hero of Cadaver Blues, my wife, Pam, and I are hopeless romantics hiding under a veneer of halfhearted practicality. All our lives, it seems, we have first acted on impulse and then rationalized our crazy decision to more sensible friends and relatives. And thus it was with our move to Wilmington, Delaware.

We spent the first twenty-two years of our relationship in and around New York, but we visited Wilmington at least once a year, staying with Pam’s grandmother in style every Christmas. She had a big, beautifully decorated tree and excellent food and killer daiquiris, so we had little motivation to leave until she kicked us out every January 2nd. On those rare occasions when we did venture forth, it was to attend well-stocked cocktail parties or to visit Hagley or Winterthur or Longwood Gardens or the Brandywine River Museum — each one arrayed in winter finery with carols playing in the background and the smell of holiday spices wafting deliciously through the air.

So when we decided — on impulse, of course — to sell our business and our house in Westchester County, NY and give life a fresh start, where were we going to go but the land of fond memories? The Brandywine Valley did more than beckon; it had already seduced us.

We pictured a place with fieldstone houses, a decorative dusting of snow in winter, bountiful fields in spring, little automobile traffic at all times, and enough good cheer to make the Dalai Lama look like a miser. Also, almost everything we ate would be free. Hadn’t that been our experience?

Well, crazy as it seems, we weren’t that far off. Although Pam’s grandmother had passed away by the time we moved, the property taxes we saw on the Patterson-Schwartz website looked to our Hudson-Valley-jaded eyes like they had a few zeroes missing. Salivating like the wolf who ate Little Red Riding Hood (weren’t those her woods up on Barley Mill Road?), we didn’t hesitate to write a script for our friends and parents.

It was the most logical thing in the world to do, pick up and leave our old lives behind. Wilmington was close to New York City (which we still loved) and Washington (where Pam’s mother lived). It had low taxes, a short ride to the countryside, and a mild climate. Oh, and the food was fr— never mind, don’t mention the free food thing. Keep up the veneer of rationality!

Anyway, as he does with fools and drunks, it turns out that the man upstairs somehow protects the shaky finances of English and Art History majors. We put our house and our business up for sale near the real estate peak and sold both before we’d even set sights on that great monument to the hamburger known as Concord Pike.

One of the many shopping centers on Wilmington’s Concord Pike

Having determined to become a novelist (my fifth career — don’t ask — but some of them, against all probabilities, were successful ones), I didn’t just see on that road the commuter traffic and the paint-chipped strip malls and the bunioned waitresses yearning to be free. On Route 202 I also saw what every storyteller needs — material.

I had this germ of an idea for a modern noirish mystery (not to be confused with a nourish mystery, which I suppose would be about wondering where all the free food went when Christmas ended), and there was something poetically relevant about the grit along those six lanes. The story features a slight little ethnic Vietnamese guy who’d been adopted as an infant by Jewish socialists, parents who gave him a first name that no white American could pronounce without uttering insults. Phuoc Goldberg is his name — a debt workout specialist with an office above a candy store. A beautiful bombshell walks in, just like a Sam Spade novel, but there the story departs because Phu isn’t a detective by choice — he just falls into it. He packs a mean left hook, but no iron — at least, not until it’s forced upon him by the course of life-threatening events. And, unlike truly cynical Sam, Phu’s just putting on a cynical front —  like a Cadbury egg, as his landlady says, he’s hard on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. Or something like that.

Anyway, the man I envisioned needed a place to meet mischief. Now that I lived in Wilmington, where else to put him but the Concord Pike? Who else to be his landlords but a couple who make fine chocolates — a rare bright spot among the chain restaurants and, besides, Phu detests sweets (his tastes run more toward sour). Where else to send him for lunch every day but Johnnie’s Dog House for a nitrite fix? And where else for him to find adventure than the exotic environs of Pennsylvania, where no native Delawarean deigns to set foot (unless it’s to visit Longwood or the paintings of a man named Wyeth)?

Of course, he acts like he’s doing it in pursuit of the cash (as Pam and I had told all of our friends — high quality of life for the dollar), when he’s really doing it in pursuit of romance in the form of a scantily clad client with a smile that would blind an Eskimo in Oakleys (much as the glitter of Christmas blinded us).

But, like the luck of an English major, it’s all in good fun and it all works out in the end. We love the Brandywine Valley, our new permanent home, the way Phu loves playing detective — even if he’ll never admit that to anyone. And when you’re on a per diem, like he is, the food really does turn out to be free.

Prologue

When I think of dead people my mind drifts to junior high school, which is no coincidence. I kept a journal back then. It ended on a Tuesday in 1987, broken off in mid-sentence when the study hall monitor rested a hand on my back and said, “Goldberg, you’re dismissed. You’re needed at home.”

I was fourteen years old. I went to the principal’s office and her secretary breached protocol and gave me a lift.

“Your father’s gone off,” my mother said as she opened the front door.

I thought: Gone off? It was the same phrase she used for old cartons of milk.

“He never made it to work. They located his car by the train station.”

We drove to the station and searched his Buick Riviera, finding no clue. The day was beautiful, May breezes and birds chirping. It was a helluva day to be alive unless your father had “gone off” and you were the class math nerd, a boy who weighed less than most girls in the eighth-grade and had started keeping a diary at the suggestion of a therapist to deal with your anger issues.

Back home, my mother hammered the phone, calling Dad’s friends and co-workers, getting nowhere. Great. We had four and a half weeks left of school and my father had flaked out. My first name, Phuoc, already made me a daily target of knuckle-draggers. Now all I could think was Please, God, don’t let anyone get wind of this episode before the term completes. Don’t make me the butt of jokes all summer.

There were no percentages in that wish. My mother’s panic filled the kitchen like seeping gas, and I felt compelled to remove myself. I shouldered my backpack and told Mom that I’d cruise the streets, see if I could find Dad. She agreed readily, eager for any help at all.

We lived in a split-level ranch, one among hundreds in an undistinguished development. I bounded along the sidewalk and turned down a strip of lawn between our house and the neighbor’s. There was a wooded park behind, and the spring trees looked as soft as a watercolor painting. The gate in our backyard fence stood open. I decided to cut through.

A well-defined path crossed the woods, worn flat and weedless by aimless teenagers like me. Two hundred feet down that path something deep in the trees to my right caught my eye. It looked like a yellow sack, and I immediately thought of those outdoor guys like Jack London who spoke of hanging their food from trees to keep the bears away. But we had no bears on Long Island.

I left the path and approached the sack cautiously. Splashes of sun illuminated random spots in the woods, making the shadows seem deeper, masking the sack’s details. So it took me a minute to appreciate that the sack was bigger than I’d thought at first, two-tone—no, three—a dark brown top, yellow middle and a longer tan bottom, slightly darker than the dried beech leaves that clung desperately to dead branches nearby.

When I was thirty feet away, a bad feeling overtook me. It caused me to stop in my tracks at first, then to break into a jog. The dark brown, I realized, was my father’s hair. The yellow his shirt. The tan his slacks, which were wet at the crotch. I ran to him and grabbed him around the shins and struggled in vain to hoist him up, choking on the smell of his feces. I am short and he hung high, having chosen a tree to which some kids had nailed wooden rungs for a makeshift lookout. The soles of his shoes soiled my plaid shirt, rubbing back and forth when I worked to improve my grip.

Dad’s was the first dead body I’d ever set eyes upon or touched. He had more heft in death than he’d had in life, and even when the breeze stirred that day he was as inert as a toadstool on the forest floor.

As hope drained from me I looked straight up past the white electrical cord that cinched his neck. One of his swollen hands, flopping around, partly obstructed the view, but I saw what I could, and that was enough.

His face was frozen blue, and his eyes had turned to clay. But what struck me more than anything was the color of his skin. I thought I’d never see that blue again as long as I lived.

The gods, as it turns out, had other ideas.

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