On a snowy day in January, 1990, my wife and I retired to a lovely, secluded cottage on a winding country lane in upstate New York. Of the six other cottages strung out along the quarter mile from the main road and ending at our driveway, three were owned and occupied by elderly widows, the fourth by a recent divorcee. The remaining two were rented, one by Mike Danilo, an NYPD Homicide detective; the other by Harry O'Brien, a retired county official who lived there with his teen-age daughter. He had obtained an amicable separation from his wife who now lived in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
Early the first morning I drove out for the paper. Admiring the play of purple shadows against brilliant reflections of sunlight from drifts of powdery snow, I noticed a wobbly trail of footprints, apparently a heavy man's, leading from a car at the head of Harry's driveway down into his house. Those tracks, I learned later, belonged to Harry who spent most evenings at Spud's Bar nearby, and who generally did not get home before closing time. I was to see his tracks many times during that and the following winter. Occasionally, a set of lighter footprints would go wobbling down the driveway alongside Harry's, and then my wife could expect a phone call about teatime from one of the widows:
"Our Mr. O'Brien is at it again! Brought home another floozy from the bar last night. Him with a young girl in the house, too!"
Harry continued his hedonistic flouting of convention until
the spring of 1992 when the divorcee received a cash settlement
-- $10,000 according to rumors. True or not, he moved himself
and his suitcases into her house shortly thereafter.
"To help her drink it up," said the widows.
"Maybe he'll settle down now," hoped Mike Danilo.
A week or so later, shopping in the local supermarket, I spotted Harry and his latest conquest. As they each owed the Lane Improvement Committee nine dollars, I steered my cart toward them to collect. He stopped me with one lordly hand, and pulled
"Here y'are, me lad. For me and her," his eyes twinkling like Barry Fitzgerald's.
Although I had been studiously avoiding conversations with him, I now saw a companion with whom one could schmooze over a few beers; one whom this woman might decide to hold onto despite pug nose, corpulence and troll-like stature. . .
My insight was faulty, however: a month later she sent Harry back to his own home; but, on the same evening he moved out, my wife and 1, sharing a pizza at Spud's, saw Harry at the bar, regaling the crowd with stories, and feeding double Scotches to a busty brunette on the next barstool.
"Didja a hear the one where Paddy goes to the doctor?" he asked rhetorically.
"Well, Doc says his liver is a disgrace, he'd have to cut down on the booze."
"What should I cut down to? he asks."
"Don't buy more than a quart a day, says Doc.".
"By God, I can't do that, says Paddy, I spill that much!"
And everyone in the place burst out laughing.
That August we heard that Harry's daughter, now of college
age, would live with her mother in the Village while attending
Columbia. Harry was to drive her down and stay a few days to
get her settled. He had been gone over two weeks when Mike Danilo
came running to our porch waving a copy of the New York Times.
"Doesn't give cause of death, Mike. What happened, do you know?" my wife asked.
"All I know is what I read in the Homicide and M.E. reports. Seems his wife took the daughter on a trip and Harry stayed to watch the apartment because their security system was out of whack
"Saturday night rolls around, Harry's getting lonely, I guess, so he goes out and comes back about midnight in a cab, escorting a young woman, heavily made up, scantily clad, and barefoot. Witnesses from the apartment house saw them come in. They all agree: it was a hot night, Harry staggered a little, and some said the woman was probably a hooker from 14th Street. Anyway, up they go into Harry's wife's apartment.
"Next morning, early, who comes down in the elevator but the same woman. One of the residents, on his way to mass, recognizes her, only now she's washed off the war paint. Also, she's wearing a good-looking blouse and skirt, carrying a mink coat on her arm, two heavy shopping bags in her hands. And this time she's wearing sensible shoes.
"Well, that woman disappears and cops are looking for her. Days later, the super gets complaints about an evil odor from the O'Brien apartment. Emergency Squad is called, super lets them in. The place looks like a hurricane hit it: drawers dumped onto the floor, clothes pulled out of the closets and thrown into a comer, mattresses slit open, stuffing piled in the bathtub. And, in a back bedroom, they find Harry hanging from a ceiling fixture. Suicide, says the M.E.
"My guess is the hooker slipped a mickey into his drink. When he conks out, she ransacks the place for anything of value: money, jewelry, watches, furs. Harry's wife is claiming a loss over $25,000.
"He wakes up next day in the middle of this wreckage. Realizes his wife and daughter will be devastated. Now, believe it or not, when Harry was sober he did have a conscience. He can't face them. So he writes a note blaming himself, sticks it in his back pocket and hangs himself with his belt. His wife has him cremated a couple of days later and dumps the ashes in the East River. No mass, no memorial service."
The widows, who had noticed Mike rushing over to our place, joined us near the
"Well, that one won't be chasing women where he's going," they sniffed.
"The poor lush," said Mike, and that was the nearest thing to an epitaph that Harry would receive.