Friday, July 9, 2021

Good news and Bad news

About a week ago I received a card indicating I had upcoming jury duty.  I was due to report at a time that was not a good one for me.  I looked on the card to see how I could postpone the service. There was a website to visit. (a pause here to comment that I do not know how people who do not use the internet are capable of functioning in a world that assumes that all can and do).

I went to the site and saw that there were several reasons that would allow a postponement. One startled me.

The good news is that it was easy to get my jury duty postponed.  One might think it is also good news that I could be, if I so desired, be disqualified for life from serving--at least in Massachusetts. The reason for disqualification: if you are over three score and ten, you can opt out.

So, that could be construed as good news.

The bad news is the implicit assumption that we post three score and ten, might not have the faculties necessary to deliberate meaningfully.  My initial reaction to the news that I could forever postpone jury duty was mixed.  I do not like the notion that I should graze on the back pasture to wait for my eventual demise. I feel pretty vibrant and with it.  Read.write, think rationally-or so it seems to me.  The idea that after a certain age we are less able to participate in the activities of the living is uncomfortable.

When I have to do my taxes, maybe I can trot out my age to avoid doing so.  Probably not.

On another note, thanks to those who read the serial mystery I've been posting. I appreciate the feedback I've received. I've sent the novel out to agents and we will see if there are any bites. I've titled it, Statue of Limitations.  (for those who read it, you know that the first word is not a typo). Any feedback on the title is welcome.  Unless, that is, if you are over three score and ten. (that last sentence is a joke).

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Fifty One

2019

After Mike’s confession, we spent the afternoon being debriefed by a host of suits. I was reprimanded for grabbing the stiff by the neck, but it was worth the finger wagging admonishment. I’ll always have in my memory bank that image of Mike sputtering when I rammed his eye-ball popping head against the wall.    

During the debriefing, the suits went through the next steps in the prosecution and what our roles might be.  I could not focus.  I sat there pretending to listen, but they’d have to send me an e-mail. My head had no room for next steps right then. There’d been no problem with the audio. We’d got the confession. I felt good about that.

However, I knew I would never be able to purge the demon completely, even if they hung Mike.  I don’t like to kid myself and the truth was that I had.  I had kidded myself. After the Fireside, I should have contacted the Smiths and persisted with the police. Sure, maybe they would have dismissed me as a quack, and maybe for a while they would have thought that I was involved, and--as far as I knew then--it was possible that the drowned woman in Cline Pond was not Jenny, and it was possible that even if Jenny was the victim, that Mike was not the killer. All that was possible.  

Yet, the case could have been explored in 1974 if I’d persisted. The Smiths might have been able to identify their daughter. Initially they would have been devastated, but they would have been spared forty-five years of not knowing what had happened to Jenny.  Mike could have been stopped from any subsequent crimes he may have committed.  

I could lie to myself again and say that I’d done all I could, but I hadn’t.   After a spell, I made the demon disappear in my own head, rationalizing it away. Suppressing somewhere for half a century what I’d not done.  It wasn’t until I got whacked in the head with the newspaper article that I did anything.

***

Becca and I went to get something to eat after the debriefing. A sort of celebratory early dinner. We returned to the motel around 7. Her room was up on the third floor away from the traffic. She doesn’t sleep well with noise.  My room was on the first floor facing the road.  Tonight, I could sleep on an airport runway. 

Tomorrow, Becca has to return to work, so I will be taking her to the airport in our rental so she can catch an early morning flight. I will have to wait until evening to go back. The suits have more questions. The Smiths are flying in and want to meet me.  

I’m in my room and am packing up.  I too will be checking out in the morning.  After I take Becca to the airport, I’ll return to the motel, shower, and put my suitcase in the car.   I plan to leave directly for the airport after I meet with the authorities and Jenny’s parents. 

***

It’s about 830 pm. There’s a knock on my motel room door. I go to open it and there is Becca.  She has a huge shopping bag from Trader Joe’s in her hand.  She’s wearing a white cardigan sweater, jeans, and sneakers. I’m surprised. I thought we’d said goodbye for the night when we came back from the restaurant.

“Hey Z.” She says.

“Hi Becca. What’s up? What’s in the bag?”

“Oh. I brought something.” She says as she walks past me into the room. She puts the bag down and turns toward me.

“A gift?” I say.

“A gift.”

“For me.”

“Well, for us.”

“Well. That’s uh nice.  Thank you.” I lift my head and gesture in the direction of the where she's placed the big shopping bag. “What’s the gift?”

“Not yet. There are some things I have to say.”

“Okay.” I take a seat on the bed and point to what I’d discovered was a surprisingly comfortable motel room chair. She sits and waits a second before starting to speak.

“It would be good” she says “if maybe you cannot be a wise guy for the next few minutes.”

“I’ll give it a go.”

“Tough for you, I know.”

“I’ll try.”

***


“Right. Look, Z.  A few things. First, I want you to know that I think that what you did was special.”

“Not a bad job as an actor.  Eh?”

“Well that too, but I’m not talking about just what you did today. I’m talking from the beginning. Once you read that article in the newspaper.”

“That was not the beginning. The beginning was forty five years ago. Once I saw the article in the airport, I had no choice.”

Becca shakes her head. “No. You had a choice. You could have ignored it. Parked it somewhere.”

“I parked it for half a century. Once I saw the article.  I couldn’t ignore it.”

“Well maybe you couldn’t have. But others would have. Z.”  She stops for a moment. “Look at me.”

I was, but I look at her more squarely.  “I’m looking.”

“If the situation was reversed, if I’d seen that article, and I’d taken that trip.  I would have found a way to ignore it.”

I look at her as if to say, “No way.”

“I would have Z.  I could have made up a dozen reasons.   It’s forty five years. There's nothing that can be done now.  I did what I could have done. I have my own life, The Smiths are better off not knowing. This is what they pay the cops for.  I would have trotted out a host of excuses. Maybe the article would have bugged me some on the flight home, but by the time I landed in Boston, I would have buried it and gone on with my life.”

“Tough to believe.”

“Believe it. I would have buried it and so would have most of the population. What you did shows who you are and what makes you the person you are.”

“Thank you. Not sure, I deserve an award for sleeping on something for half a century that may have allowed a murderer to keep killing-but thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Another pause. She puts her head down for a moment and then picks it back up. Looks right in my eyes. “Listen Z. You know that you and I could never have made it together.”

“I know that.”

“You’re just too much of a pain in the ass.”

I point to myself. “I’m a pain in the ass?”

“Yes, you are a pain in the ass.  You know, the government has sent me medals for being your girlfriend for those years we were in Buffalo.”

“Medals?” I say.

“Medals.  There’s not enough room in my house for all the medals they sent me for putting up with you.”

“You might want to check the inscription on those medals.  See what’s written on them. It’s probably not complimentary. Those medals are probably engraved with the word ‘BallBuster.’ "

“No. I’ve looked at them. That’s not what they say. On one side the inscription reads ‘Patience’ and the other side ‘Perseverance.’”

“Patience? Right. Must have been delivered to the wrong address. You know. The post office...”

“You and I could never live together. If I foolishly ever decided to move in with you and brought my furniture over, two weeks later I’d have to call the moving company to take my furniture back.”

“Less than two weeks.” I say.

“One week.”

“Probably” I say. “You know if you were thinking of moving in, you could have booked a round trip with the movers.”

“Right. Round trip. Like a plane.” She said. “Make sure to reserve for the move back.”

I snap my fingers. “Or, you know, when they come the first time, have the movers wait on the street. Like a cab. ‘Hey driver. Wait here and keep the meter running. I should be right back.’”

“Something like that.” She laughs. “Look we both know we couldn’t make it together. But still, I want you to know that I think—I’m being serious now—I think you are a wonderful person. What you did, few would do.”

“Not sure I am wonderful. Mike might have killed others. I could have prevented it. That doesn't make me real wonderful.  But if we are talking about wonderful and are being serious here…” I pause and make sure we are looking into each other’s eyes. “I’m not blowing smoke, Becca. What you did was other worldly. We don’t get to today without what you did.   Not only how careful and meticulous you were. Your influence. We don’t get a hearing without you knowing people.  You didn’t need this time sap. You were so thorough. Becca, if I was wonderful, you were wonderful squared.”

“Glad you think so Z.” Becca puts her hand on the back of one of mine. Holds it there for a moment. Then she gets up from her seat. She takes a few steps one way before turning back and sitting down again. 

 “I’ve been thinking a lot about your trip in ‘74. I remember something you told me when you returned.  You said that it was like a microcosm of life. You remember talking about this?”

“Well, I remember thinking about it.”

“You talked to me about it. You said the trip was a microcosm. Good rides and bad rides.  Going the right way, but then sometimes going the wrong way. Getting off track and having to find your way to the right path again.  Like life.  You don’t remember telling me this?”

“I probably did. I thought about it a lot.”

“I thought of something else the other day. Another way your trip was a microcosm of life.  Your trip, like life, was really made up of a bunch of coincidences.  You get one ride it leaves you off here, and therefore you get an opportunity to meet a person there, who would never be part of your life, had you not taken the first ride. You leave a half an hour later from UCLA and you get different rides. Never see the Chicken Farmer or Tim or Lomack. If you don’t get turned around in Salt Lake City, you don’t meet Maurianne, and then you don’t meet Jenny. What happens to Jenny may or may not happen, but it occurs in a different orbit.

“Our whole life is just a bunch of coincidences. What are the odds that Jenny meets Mike at the motorcycle show? Tiny. But then again, what are the odds that I ever meet up with you. I’m from Baltimore. We meet in Buffalo because you, at the last minute, decide not to enroll at Michigan. I was in that class we were in because the one I wanted to get into was cancelled.  And I wasn’t even supposed to be in Buffalo. Before Buffalo I intended to marry my then boyfriend and live in Annapolis. He and I break up and I go to school in Buffalo to get away and have a fresh start, and I wind up taking the substitute class where we meet. 

“And now here we are. In a motel in Scranton, Pennsylvania doing something that would not have been done, by us at least, had it not been for hundreds of coincidences.  We all connect because of coincidences.  

Again, Becca reaches out and puts her hands out. This time she holds onto mine.

You remember when we went to see Jacques Brel is Alive and Well?

“I’ll never forget seeing that show with you.” 

“And then I bought you the album for your birthday.”

“Sure. That was a great gift, Becca.  We played the hell out of that album.”

“Over and over.” Says Becca “Lying on that cheap rug in your room in front of those secondhand speakers you had. Do you remember the song about the carousel?”

“Sure.” I sing-song the recurring lyric: “‘We’re on a carousel, a crazy carousel.’”

“That’s right. I wrote that on the wrapping paper when I gave you the gift: ‘We’re on a carousel, a crazy carousel.’ Happy birthday Z. Let’s enjoy this ride. Becca’”  

“I remember that.” And I do. I even had kept the wrapping paper for some time.

 “I’m glad that you remember that note.” Another pause. “I just want to say this last thing and then I am going to shut up.”

“Good.” I say  "If you speak any longer I'm afraid you'll send me a bill for consulting."

She waves at me. “When we all are on our carousel rides, we, on occasion, mess up. We’re not machines. We mess up now and then. And then we have choices. We can either keep on riding around in circles and pretend nothing is wrong. Or we can clean up the mess.”

“Good analogy.” I say.

“And what sets people apart, I think, is their willingness to acknowledge their messes; and not pretend they don’t exist.” Becca releases her hands from mine. She stands up again and looks down at me. “The truth is Z, you did mess up. You’re a good man. But you did mess up. Not saying I wouldn't have messed up in the same way.  I think it's likely that I would have done just what you did. But you did mess up.”

“Believe me, I know.”

“But as opposed to most people-including me-you, today, and for the last months have looked squarely at the mess and you dealt with it.”

“A little too late.”

“Not too late. Not too late. There is no” Becca puts her hands up to make air quotes, “There is no ‘statue of limitations’ on acknowledging our messes and cleaning up.”

Becca pulls me up from where I’d been sitting on the bed “You’re a good man Z. A good man.” 

And then Becca embraces me. She gives me a hug that is no tent triangle hug.  It is a braless squeeze that is accompanied by as steamy a kiss as one can enjoy. I embrace it and return the kiss. When we disengage, my heart is beating rat a tat tat. There is no traction on any of the thoughts that are coursing through my brain.  Starch is beginning to work between my legs.

"That wasn't the gift?" I say

 Becca laughs. “Jenny had that moon and star tattoo. Light illuminating the darkness. When anyone cleans up their stuff, they are light illuminating darkness.”

“Hey Becca, I’m serious. Without you, today does not happen.”

“I helped. I know. You’re too stubborn and impetuous to have done this yourself.”

“Now you sound like Becca.”

“And it was beyond stupid and irresponsible for you to have hitchhiked by yourself in the first place. Stupid. Irresponsible. We’re not invulnerable.  And really, Z, let’s be honest, you are difficult…But you’re a good man.”

“Should I have that as my tattoo. Get a tattoo on my chest that says Good Man.”

“Nah. Don’t bother with the ink. It’s already there and you can’t get rid of it. Besides, to be truthful, you’d have to have another tattoo underneath it… ‘But extraordinarily difficult.’ It would require more ink and probably be expensive. So many letters in extraordinarily.”

“Okay. Fine. Enough with the barbed compliments. What’s in the bag?”

“Right, the bag.” Becca takes a breath. “I told you. We could never make it, you and me.”

“Nothing could be more incontrovertible.” I say.

“But we did bring justice to Jenny Smith.” 

“Thanks. Glad you used the pronoun We.” I gesture with my head toward the bag.   

“The bag.” She says. The bag is sitting a few feet over from where Becca and I are standing. Before moving toward it, Becca leans over and kisses me lightly.  Then she turns and reaches into the bag. She yanks out a stuffed pillowcase and hoists the pillow case over her shoulder.

“Santa Claus coming to town?”

“Sort of.” Becca says.  Then she opens up the pillowcase, and pours out tee shirts, underwear, a pair of white shorts, and a bra.

I stare at the clothes. I think I know where she is going. Becca sees my staring and begins speaking.“It’s time to do the wash, Z." She pauses. “There's a very powerful there here, and the carousel does not run forever." 

“Is there a reason you still separate the white clothes from the dark. I never could get that.”

Becca smiles.  “It’s time to do the wash.  You agree?” 

I nod. “I can be down with that.”

Becca smirks. “I trust you soon will be.” Becca slowly unbuttons her cardigan and removes it.  She turns around and, go figure, folds the sweater neatly before placing it on the motel dresser. She turns back “Take off your shirt Z.”  

I do. We stand there naked from the waist up staring at each other.   

Then Becca takes a step forward and hugs and kisses me again.  It is thrilling. The starch has done its work.

"We'll always have Scranton." I say.

Gently Becca takes a finger and presses against my chest so that I will fall back on the bed. When I am seated, she begins pushing her jeans below her hips. “This is right.” She says. “The crazy carousel does not run forever. It will stop for us both at some point. Right now. This moment when the there is so here. Let’s enjoy the ride.”


The End

Monday, June 28, 2021

Fifty

 2019


I make sure to take a souvenir

Becca and I stare at the enlarged picture again.  Mike and his nephew Pedro. 

Happy Father’s Day Uncle Mike. You’re like a father to me.

There’s scrawny bespectacled Mike. Flannel shirt, dirty jeans, no smile. 

There is something around Mike’s neck. A leather chain.  Dangling from the chain is a rabbit’s foot; a rabbit’s foot designed as a key ring.  But instead of any keys, linked to the top of the rabbit’s foot is a charm in the shape of a moon and a star.

***

It pays to be a big shot. Becca belongs to several national organizations composed of vice presidents.  They meet periodically and consequently she has formed friendships with executives throughout the country and the world.  She knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone.

Thanks to Becca, I gain an audience with lawmakers and police officials. I detail what I know.  I also describe the plan we’ve devised. Becca is there in the room with me.  She provides moral support and also interjects details when I forget to include them. She establishes, because of her connections and reputation, a degree of legitimacy without which I’d likely be considered a quack.   There are dozens of questions directed at me. I feel like I am on the stand.  That’s okay. The more questions I hear and respond to, the stronger I feel about what needs to be done.

When we have finished with our presentation and the interrogation, we are told to leave and wait in an anteroom. Becca gives me a pat on the head—good job. I nod. I think she is right and, not for the first time, thank her for greasing the way. 

We are not in the waiting room more than fifteen minutes, when an ambassador-- someone Becca knows peripherally-comes out and says she thinks it is a go. They need, however, to gain approval from authorities before we will receive the final consent.  

We return to Boston and within a week, Becca gets a call. All systems are go.  

Again, we travel and meet with lawmakers.  We role play and role play and role play some more. I am told what I must do and what I absolutely must not do.

***

Mike Martin lives in an assisted living community in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He shares a room with another person.  There’s a curtain between his bedspace and his roommate’s.  

I walk into the facility. I am confident but apprehensive. I was up early thinking about what needs to happen.   Last night I went through it one more time with Becca. 

I have got to get this right. It is an opportunity to purge a demon that has been lurking in my gut and corrupting my insides for half a century.  Since April it has been an ever-present reminder of what I could have done and did not do.

Echoing in my head are Becca’s last words to me this morning “You can do this Z.”

We had seen a map of the facility before today.  I knew that there was a lounge on Mike’s floor for the residents. A hallway to the left led to one set of rooms. Similarly, there were rooms down a corridor to the right.  There was a central nurses’ and attendants’ station in the middle of the lounge. The lounge itself contained reclining chairs and couches spread out in a space the size of an elementary school gymnasium.  Today, several of the residents are sitting in various parts of the lounge. No one is particularly close to anyone else.   Some of the people in the lounge appear to be more with it than others. There’s music piped into the lounge. A tv is on that nobody seems to be watching.  

I see him in the lounge. He’s not reading a paper or magazine. Not watching tv. Just sitting there rocking slowly with a “the world messed with me” look across the face.  He wears a sweater. Brown and plain. He’s got on a pair of slacks that are a size too large. Baggy around the legs.  Looks like the belt pin is attached to the last notch or else he could get up from the chair and leave the pants behind. Again, as I thought when I first met him, he looks like Barney Fife’s brother who went bad. A ne’er do well who believes he has been wronged. The adult version of the kid who blew up the school and when confronted by the principal, scowled and said defiantly--with the dynamite in his hand-- “It’s my fault right?” 

The good Barney went to work for the sheriff. His twin shoplifted his way out of town before moving on up to uglier crimes.  Thin, gray hair now, balding. Still dandruffed. Mashed in nose. Sliding spectacles. Rocking slowly.

And he has the rabbit’s foot around his neck. The moon and cross charm visible.

Becca looks every bit of an orderly working the floor.  She’s left Rebecca Carey somewhere and now has an Annie name tag. She is unobtrusively moving about the lounge bringing water to the residents. 

This is it. I have to get this right.  

Annie brings me over to where he is sitting.

***

“Mike. You have a visitor.”

He looks up. “Who the fuck are you?”

It’s show time. 

“Mike. Hey Mike. Remember me?”  

Mike looks at Annie. “I never saw this bastard in my life.”

I try to look puzzled. “Mike, Come on. Mike. Albuquerque truck stop. All those years meeting up at the truck stop. Come on, Take a good look.”

He glances at me. 

“Don’t know this guy.” He says to Annie. He flips his hand up. “Get him the fuck away from me.”

I continue to look puzzled. I say to Annie, “He doesn’t remember me. Is he in here for Alzheimer’s?”  

Mike snorts. “Nothing wrong with me.” Mike is facing straight ahead. Not looking at me. Speaking straight ahead as he did in the truck coming out of Gallup.

“Cmon Mike. Take another look.” I say “We’d meet up in Albuquerque. Eat at the restaurant. You’d always order Steak and Eggs.  I mimic, “ ‘Steak and Eggs. Steak rare. If it's not rare I'll send it back.’”

Mike pauses. He looks at me suspiciously. He dismisses any doubt. Then he turns away and stares straight ahead again. “Lots of truckers eat steak and eggs.” He says.

“Sure, but we met.  Hey Mike, you told me a lot. You know, you told me about your uncle. The drunk who raised you.  C’mon Mike don’t you remember me? We ate together a bunch of times when we came through Albuquerque.  You know the big truck stop.”

“I know the big truck stop. Drove truck for thirty years. Should know the truck stop. But I don’t know you.”

I make a face like “this is tough to believe.”  “Okay I’ll leave, but if you don’t know me how come I know about what your ex-wife did. How you come home one day from a haul, and your wife has left and taken everything in the house except the toaster.” I shake my head.

Mike raises his eyebrows.  Glances at me. Still with a skeptical look. “I told you about the toaster.”

“Yeah. You come home one day and that’s the only thing in the house.”

Mike’s returns to looking forward. “Don’t know how many people I told about the toaster.”

“Well you told me” I say.  “And then you know, you told me about your sister.”

This gets a rise out of Mike. He looks over. “What did I tell you about my sister?”

“Well, you told me that she was an ingrate and” I look around and lower my voice, “even married a spic.”

A pause. “What did you say your name is again?”

“Georgie. Georgie, Tell me you don’t remember Georgie.”

Mike raises his eyebrows. Takes another look. He’s not convinced. Still sour he turns back to the straight-ahead stare.

“Pedro, right?” I say. “You told me she married a spic named Pedro.”

Mike looks down. Scratches his pursed lips. A sideways look at me “Albuquerque? We met in Albuquerque?”

“Albuquerque. Truck stop” I confirm.

Back to staring ahead with a scowl. “Still don’t recognize you. Sort of remember the name Georgie.”

“Sure you do.” I say.

“Okay.” He glances at a chair nearby indicating, in a suit yourself way, that I could pull it over and sit. I do. “What do you want, Georgie?”

“Well you know you told me if I ever was in Scranton I should look you up.” I have memorized the address he had written at the truckstop service area.  I recite it.

Mike snorts something that passes for a laugh. “I haven’t lived there in quite a while.  Been here. Nothing wrong with me. Shouldn’t be here. My sister thinks I need to be here.  Stupid.”

“The sister you raised. Right? Your mom died. At least that’s what you told me. Dad dumped you off on the uncle who liked to knock them back. So you said--you told me anyway--that you had to raise your sister. And then, well, she didn’t appreciate it. Maybe I got that wrong.”

“No you got that right. I raised the ingrate.” He turns and looks at me full on. “Georgie. Georgie. Now you’re looking a bit familiar” Mike squints. “From the truckstop?”

“Right. ‘Steak and eggs.’” I mimic Mike again. “ ‘Steak and Eggs. Steak rare. If it's not rare I'll send it back.’” I laugh.

Mike emits another snort. “I would too. I’d send it back.”

“I know it.” I nod my head a couple of times.  “That sister with that damn tattoo.”

“I told you about that too?” Mike shakes his head. Surprised that I know so much about him. “Let’s go back to my room where we can talk without all these jackasses around.”

This is music to my ears. There will be less ambient noise that might interfere with the recording. “Are you sure? You look comfortable here.”

“My room is more private.  Got a roommate who is a jerk, but he keeps the curtain shut. Cmon. ‘Nurse.’” Mike yells.

Becca/Annie comes over.  “Help me up. Need to go into my room. And bring me the damn walker” He looks at Becca “You new here?”

“Started last week”

“Well move.” He says to Becca. She returns with the walker. Mike leans on Becca’s shoulder and stands up from the chair. Then he opens the walker and turns to me. “Staff sucks around here. Jews or Spics.” 

I nod.  

 Mike points to the walker.  “I don’t need this damn thing. They make me use it. Insurance, they say. Bull shit.”  

Again, I nod. 

***

I follow Mike into the room. The room is spartan. There’s a curtain that bisects the space. Mike’s section is on the right. A closet is on the immediate right as you walk in the door. His bed is against the wall parallel to the curtain. There’s a dresser adjacent to the bed that is against the far wall. Next to the dresser under a window is an upholstered chair. 

Becca walks in with us and helps Mike down onto his bed. Mike doesn’t balk when she helps him get seated but once settled facing the curtain with his legs dangling over the side of the bed, he barks at her. “I don’t need you to sit on my damn bed.”

“Pull up a chair Jackie” he points to the upholstered chair.

“Georgie” I say.

“I said Georgie” says Mike. “You got wax in your ears?”

I make a self-effacing gesture. I am still standing. I look around. “Not a bad room you got here.”

“Sucks.” Says Mike. As usual, Mike is staring straight ahead speaking as if addressing the curtain.

“Not bad is what I said. It aint the Marriott. But not bad.”

“Not the Marriott. You can say that again. The Marriott. Ha…Sit down.  There’s another chair in the closet if the big one don’t suit you.  Two chairs per room.   Not that anybody ever comes to visit here.”

“Your sister don’t visit?”

Mike waves his hand in disgust. “To hell with her. She put me in here. Her kid’ll come by, now and again. He turned out not so bad. I think she forces him to visit.”

I comment, “Pedro, right. I think you told me that she gave the kid the dad’s name. Pedro Jr.”

Mike shakes his head from side to side. “Yeah. That’s the kid’s name. Can’t believe I didn’t recognize you.  Maybe I am losing my mind. What else did I tell you? My favorite position.” I see that mirthless laugh. Laughter caught behind his closed mouth.

I laugh dutifully.

I get a folding chair out from the closet and place it with my back to the door. I get as close as I can get to Mike without it seeming peculiar.

“You just passing through, Georgie?” Mike says

“Well sort of. Wanted to talk about something you started telling me about.”

“What’s that?” Not much enthusiasm in Mike’s voice.  Still staring straight ahead.

“Well” I start. “You know I told you about my ex.”

Mike squints. Shakes his head. “Remind me.”

“You know, I told you about her affair with the Indian and the damn tattoo.”

At the word tattoo Mike pulls raises his eyebrows. He speaks slowly. “The Indian and the tattoo? I need to hear more.”    

“Well, I told you that--maybe I shouldn’t have--but we were having dinner at the truck stop. You and me.” I stop, shake my head, and mimic him again.  “’Steak and Eggs. Steak Rare. Make it rare or I’ll send it back.’ You killed me with that.”

Mike smiles or what passes as a smile for him.  I can almost see teeth. “How damn hard is it to make it rare?”

“Right.” I say.

“Don’t know how many times they got it wrong.” Mike shakes his head sourly bemused. “You were saying. About your wife.”

“Right, My wife. Well, you remember I told you that I knew she was screwing this Indian.” I stop and look at him. “You do remember that I told you about the Indian?”

Mike gives a signal with his fingers moving them toward his face suggesting that he needs more information. It looks like a pedestrian helping a motorist back up into a tight parking space.

“Well,” I continue,  “she’s screwing this Indian and I call her on it. I say, “‘I know you’re screwing the Indian’. At first she denies it. But I keep pressing her and finally she admits it.  She yells “Yeah, I’m screwing the Indian.’ Bitch. That’s the word, right? Bitch.”  

Mike nods his head.  “What happens then? Remind me.”

“Well after I call her on it, and she admits it, instead of apologizing she gets all huffy. She leaves the house and doesn’t come back that night or the next night or the next. Finally, she comes home… You don’t remember this, Mike?”

Again, Mike waves at his face, “Keep it coming. It’s sounding more and more familiar.”

“Well she comes home eventually with a damn tattoo. A warrior tattoo. An Indian warrior. Can you believe it.  This is before everybody had tattoos. A warrior tattoo. Well I go nuts.  It’s on her arm! A warrior on her arm!” I change my tone. “When I told you this in Albuquerque, that’s when you tell me about your sister’s tattoo. On her bicep right.”  

Mike shakes his head again “Shit. right. My sister’s tattoo is right there.” He jabs at his right bicep. “I can’t believe I forgot meeting you.”

“Well the thing is I tell you about my wife over dinner and I just say that I got to do something about this. You know get her back. And you say, that you can help me with that.”

Mike raises his eyebrows. “And what did I say.”

“Well, you say” I look from one side to the other “you say that you know how to take care of business.  That’s what you say. You say you know how to take care of business and you have taken care of business.”

There’s a Barney Fife proud smirk. “Damn right I take care of business.”

“The thing is you don’t tell me what you did. You’re about to start, but someone from the garage comes over and says that your truck is ready. You look at your watch and say something like holy crap. that you gotta go.”

“I didn’t tell you nothing else?”

“No, but you said I could look you up if I ever got east because you’d taken care of this kind of business before.”  Again, I look left and right. I drop my voice but make sure it is loud enough.  “As you were leaving to go get your truck, you leaned over the table and told me that you once took care of a cunt who had a tattoo on her tits! On her tits!”

At this Mike smiled such that I could almost see a tooth. He looked like someone, starved for recognition, who had just been reminded of a decades’ old accomplishment. Barney Fife’s no-good twin delighted that someone remembered how he once did something.  

We are betting that Mike is eager to spill. I stay silent for a moment and just look at him.

“I told you that?” He said.

“Oh yeah.”

Now it was Mike’s turn to swivel his head from left to right.  He leaned over to the clothes dresser to the side of his bed.  He opened up a drawer, pawed around, and took out an envelope. Then he pulled from the envelope what looks like a copy of the photo Jenny posted at UCLA.  

Mike holds up the picture.

“Who’s that?” I say.

“That’s who. That’s who I was talking about. The business I took care of.”

“You took care of her?” I ask.

Mike smirks “You could say so.”

“Can I see the picture?” 

Mike hands it over.  He’s bragging. “I got a bunch of them.”  

“You do?”

“Four or five. Took them after.”

“After? What happened? How’d you handle it?”

Mike pauses, dramatically. “You want to know?”

“Up to you, but you know maybe what you did. Maybe it can help me with my ex. I still want to punish her.” I say.  “She’s not with that Indian anymore, but I see her around. Still has that damn tattoo. And it bothers me. Like a smack in the face when I see it.”

“I can understand that.” Said Mike.  

“You don’t have to tell me…”

“It’s okay. Telling you how I took care of business might be useful to you.” He is busting to spill.  

“That would be great.”

“Well Okay then.” He’s ready. He pauses for a few seconds. “I remember it clearly.” He turns toward me. “You know they say here that my memory is for shit, and sometimes, it’s true. I can’t remember what I did an hour ago.  But I remember what I did with her” he points to the photo before continuing staccato, “like-it-was-yesterday. I’ll never forget a detail.”   

“If you don’t want to tell me.”

Mike waves me away. “Might help you with your wife.”

I nod. “Could. What happened?”

***

Mike gives a little left and right again before starting. Big inhale. He looks like someone who doesn’t need much prodding to talk about how he caught the big fish. He speaks straight ahead toward the curtain. I make sure I am close enough. Plan is for Becca to come in on some pretense if the volume is insufficient.  There’s a gizmo I can press if that’s the case. But there is no need.  Nobody comes into the room. They’re apparently catching it all.

“Here’s what happened. It was in July. I was home in Carbondale between hauls and went over to the Wayne County Fairgrounds over by Honesdale. Not that far from here. Maybe 40 minutes. Have some good girlie shows at the Fair there let me tell you. 

“Anyway, I am at the Fairgrounds because there is a motorcycle show. Bunch of motorcyclists gathering there.  Ride motorcycles myself.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Wasn’t riding that day, drove my wagon there, but I know motorcycles.  I went over to look at the bike show. And she” he points to the photo of Jenny I am holding. “she is over there.

“She’s wearing, sneakers, jeans and one of those blowsy shirts. You know a pull over type thing. Used to call ‘em peasant blouses. My damn sister used to wear them. “

“Uh huh. She’s wearing a blouse.”

“Yeah. Big blouse. A size probably too big. I decide to go over to chat her up; see if she knows motorcycles. And she does.” Mike nods a few times. Raises his eyebrows. “She damn well knows motorcycles. We get to talking. I can tell she’s got a thing for me.”  Mike shrugs, “Always been that way for me. Women are attracted to me.”

“Sure. I can see that.”

Mike shakes his head to affirm. “Always been that way. Well, it’s got to be close to 830-9 at night. She” and again he points to the photo I’m holding, “She tells me she has to get back to Callicoon and she’s hitch hiking.  Callicoon is about thirty-forty five minutes from the fairgrounds. She says she has got a job as a cleaner at some resort in Callicoon. I think it was a wop joint. Still there I think. Villa something or other.” A pause.  He pulls two fingers over the nostrils of his smashed nose. “I tell her I’m going that way myself. She hesitates because she thinks it’s a lie which it is. But like I said she’s attracted to me. She says, sure I can drive her back to work. She asks if we can get a sandwich or something before we go. She’s hungry.  I say fine.  I figure I am going to get some action if you know what I mean.”

“Oh yeah. I know what you mean.”

“Well, there was a place at the fairgrounds where you could buy burgers and fries and stuff like that. Kind of like a truck with a kitchen in it. There were picnic tables nearby. I buy her a burger and we sit at the picnic table for a while talking about motorcycles. At one point she bends over to tie her shoelaces. The blowsy shirt comes down and I can see, as clear as day, that she has got this big tattoo right on her tit.” Again a pause. The world has messed with me sourpuss stares straight ahead. “Anytime I see a tattoo on a woman it bugs me, reminds me of my goddamn sister marrying a spic and putting that damn tattoo on her arm.”

“Sure. Like my wife and the Indian tattoo”

Mike points at me, moving his left hand to the side, sticking a digit in my direction. He glances at me. “Right. Like that.”

“What happened then.”

Mike is still looking at me. “I say to her that I couldn’t help but notice her tattoo when she was tying her shoes. She says, ‘uh, huh’ or something like that. Irritates me. Just saying ‘uh huh’ like I am some kind of creep for looking at what she has put out there for everyone to look at.” 

Mike returns to staring straight ahead. Takes a breath. “But I don’t say nothing about being irritated. I just ask her about the tattoo. Why she likes it. Why she got it. She gives me this song and dance crap about what it means. Then she says something that does it. She said she decided to get the tattoo to make a statement. Make a statement.” He nods and then shakes his head--bringing the world has done me wrong scowl up a notch.  “That is what my slut sister told me when she put that spic’s name on her arm. She was making a statement.” Mike shakes his head in disgust. “Make a statement. 

“My sister wants to make a statement? How ‘bout thanking me for raising her. Giving up everything to raise her.”

“She never thanked you?”

He gives me an “Are You Kidding Me” look. “Never. My drunk uncle was worthless. I had to work. Had to protect my sister from my uncle. Come home and try to do stuff to her. Try to do stuff to me.”

“No kidding?”

“No fucking kidding. Grabbing her. Grabbing me where he shouldn’t a been grabbing. I protected her from that damn bastard. Mom dies and I’m the father. I’m a kid myself. I watch out for her. Make sure no jerks take her out. Make sure she gets to school. Gets home from school.

“And then she goes ahead and gets a damn tattoo to “Make a Statement” Mike is close to shouting now.  He realizes this and takes a breath before lowering his voice. “Make a statement that she belongs to a spic name Pedro. Where’s her appreciation for me. Where is her statement for me?”

“Damn right.” I say. “You had a big thanks coming to you.”

“Damn right.” Mike pauses.  “Anyway when this” he makes a gesture toward the picture “bitch says she got a tattoo to make a statement, on her tit no less, I got real angry.  She asks if anything is the matter. I say nothing, but it is time we start driving to Callicoon.”

“Right.” I say.

“Right. But we never get to goddamn Callicoon.”

“What happened?”

“We never were going to get to Callicoon. We start driving and get to a hamlet called Galilee. Galilee probably got a population of about ten. West Bumfuck has skyscrapers compared to Galilee. Nothing to the place. Got a general store that closes at like 4.  We get to Galilee. It’s pitch black. Instead of continuing on to Callicoon, I pull over in the middle of nowhere and take out my knife.” Mike nods his head up and down. 

“Well she is startled of course and wants to know what I am doing. I tell her I want to see her tits up close and personal.  I want to see her goddamn tattoo. Her make a statement tattoo. There’s a cost for driving her to Callicoon, I tell her ‘Maybe I want to make a statement.’ I say. 

“Her eyes get wide for a minute or two. Then, it seems that she figures, what the hell. She says that I can feel her up and she’ll even blow me, but only when we get back to Callicoon.” Mike shakes his head from side to side.

“I say to her ‘What do you think I am a moron? Once we get to Callicoon you’ll run. I want to see those tits and that damn tattoo now.’  Well, she smiles and says that she knew I was too smart for that, but she just needs to get something to drink.  We’d passed that general store a way back and she’d noticed a coke machine out on the porch. She wants me to go back to the machine so she can get a Coke. Then, she says, I’m all hers. Just to entice me, she takes her tits out and starts to shake them for me. But she puts them back in and says she needs a drink.

“Okay that’s fine with me. I go back to the dead as a doornail general store, but before I let her out of the car to get the Coke, I wave my knife at her and tell her just what I am going to do. Give her a damned description of just what I plan to do. I tell her I am going to fuck her and tear that goddamn tattoo off of her. I also tell her that I got a thing for twats with tattoos. That my no-good sister that I raised myself got a spic tattoo.

“Well, there’s this minute pause when she’s looking at me, and then she just goes wild. She opens her eyes wide again, but this time even wider, like she recognizes me or something. Eyes bugging out of her head. Not kidding.” Mike still staring straight ahead makes a meal out of demonstrating how wide Jenny’s eyes open up.

“After like a second of these eyeballs bugging out, she starts to scream. I got the windows down and we are nowhere. No one is going to hear her, but I whack her across the face anyway. You know to discourage her from screaming. 

“Before I know it, she has a knife out and the bitch has cut me under my chin. Right here.” Mike points to a scar. “I grab her, but she takes out a can of pepper spray from somewhere and sprays it in my eyes Then while I’m still blind, she bangs my head against the door.”

“Holy smokes.” I say.

“Yeah, that’s right. Well, I must have conked out for a few seconds. When I come to, I see she has run up to the general store porch where there is an outside pay phone. She’s making a damn call. I stagger out of the car and pull her by the hair away from the phone, hang the damn phone up, and throw her in the car.  

“Then and there I go to work on the tattoo, but she is a feisty bitch. I smash her head but good into the window and that knocks her out. There’s an old Jew kids camp about a mile from the general store. It’s out of business I know because I know a trucker who delivers food to the Jew camps up there.  

“I drive into this out of business Jew camp and keep going until I find a lake. All these camps have lakes. So, I’m down at the lake. She’s still conked out. I take all her clothes off.” Mike stops and looks directly at me. “Gotta do that. If you don’t take their clothes off, they can trace it.”

“Good to know” I say.

He returns to looking straight ahead. “I got all her clothes off, but then she comes to. And she’s kicking and screaming. Finally I just stab the bitch. Don’t get quite the whole tattoo but she is dead, dead. I drag her to the water. 

“Before I dump her, I find some rocks. There was a long rock wall near the lake. I got a bunch of rope in my wagon. Get a few of the rocks and tie them to her feet and arms and then drop her in the lake. Probably still there now.  Dumped her right in the lake.” He stops again to look at me to be clear about the tutorial. “You gotta find a place to dump em Georgie, or else, you know there could be problems.”

Again I say, “Good to know.”

“Anyway,” Mike inhales with a sense of pride. “That’s what I did. I made a damn statement. Took care of business. Got home bandaged up my chin. Cleaned out the wagon.  The next day I started a three week haul out West.  Maybe that’s when I saw you. Out in Albuquerque.”

“What did you do with her clothes? 

“I burned them. Easy.  But I kept souvenirs. Up to you if you want to do that. But I did. Kept souvenirs.”

“You did?”

Mike snorts and points to the picture I am holding. “I told you I had more of those pictures. She had about five of these in her pack. Took ‘em all.”

“You took the pictures as a souvenir?’

Mike nods. “That aint all.” Mike puts his hand around his neck. “In her pack was a rabbit’s foot.  For good luck.  Guess it didn’t work.” I see Mike’s mirthless smile.

“I take the damn rabbit’s foot. I got some leather afterwards and made a lanyard. Put the rabbit’s foot on the lanyard. Now I wear it around my neck all the time. My damn statement.” He nods his head “It’s got silver on it.  Take a look.” He turns and holds the rabbit’s foot up for me to see. “Real silver charm here. Moon and star.  Real silver. Not going to sell it though.”

“You killed her?”

“Damn right. Took care of business.”

“You killed the woman in the picture here.”

“I killed her.”

I pause. I feel and hear a buzz in my back. It’s the signal to tell me that they got it.

“What’s that noise?” says Mike.

I don’t answer. I grab the sick bastard by his sweater, lift up the scrawny prick and ram him against the wall.

Mike’s eyeballs retreat. He looks at me stunned. “What the fuck?”

***

Into the room come the suits who have been listening. Must be about five of them. Mike starts moving his head back and forth like he’s watching a high-speed tennis match. “What the fuck” he says again.

“Let go of him.” I am yanked away.

The officers tell him he is under arrest for the murder of Jennifer Smith. They read him Miranda.

“What the fuck? Who the fuck are you?”

“We are the people arresting you.”

Mike tries to rally.  He laughs that mirthless laugh that can’t come out of his mouth. 

“Well,” says, Mike, trying to regain his swagger, “the joke is on you.”  He makes a face that in another context would look like someone exaggerating puckered up lips waiting for a kiss. A piece of his tongue sticks out from the pursed lips. He nods his head up and down.

One of the officers takes the picture from my hand. He shows the picture to Mike. “Did you kill this woman?”  

Mike snorts. Opens up his pursed up lips with the tiny bit of tongue sticking out. “Damn right. Killed her and threw her in the lake at the Jew camp.”

“You know you have the right to remain silent.”

“I know. I know. Fuck you. Doesn’t matter. I killed her. But so what.” Mike shakes his head from side to side. “You morons. Ha.”

“Ha. Is it?”

Mike is almost laughing with his mouth open. “Yeah, I killed that tattooed twat in the picture. But nothing you can do about it.”

“Nothing we can do about it?”

“That’s right you morons.” And then he smirks. “It was a zillion years ago. Ever hear of the Statue of Limitations.

“Statue of Limitations” Mike shakes his head from side to side. “You morons. Statue of Limitations.”


Sunday, June 27, 2021

Forty Nine

August 1974


The Fireside Inn, a restaurant and bar, sits on a hill off a country road--Pennsylvania Route 191.  There is nothing but a rural five mile stretch between The Fireside and the closest bona fide town to the south. Beyond the Fireside going north, east and west there is next to nothing.  Monticello, New York is 35 miles to the east. Scranton, Pennsylvania about the same distance to the southwest.   

I often wondered how the Fireside survived in the winters. I heard that hunters would come to the area during various hunting seasons, but beyond hunters there was not much in the way of potential customers. Villages like Rileyville and Lookout were little more than signs on the road.  Rileyville, the bigger of the two, has-- even now--a tiny population, six hundred and forty-one residents.

In the summers, the population in the area swells.  There are dozens of children’s sleep-away camps near the Fireside.   Must be at least forty.  Equinunk, Tyler Hill, Swago, just three of the many.  In 1974, these camps operated for eight consecutive weeks starting in the early days of July and ending three and a half weeks into August.  Each camp employed counselors, swimming instructors, kitchen staff, and coaches of various stripes. Employees at these camps typically were relieved of their duties at 9 pm.  And then the staffs would jam into autos and drive to a tavern to do what people do in taverns.

The Fireside was a popular spot.  When you entered there was an informal restaurant to the left and a Cheers looking horseshoe bar to the right.  Counselors and staff from the various camps would arrive well after the dinner crowd, to whatever extent there was a dinner crowd, and commandeer tables to the left of the bar.  Groups would gather around these tables knocking back bottled beers and playing drinking games. Come about 1145, the patrons would stumble into their vehicles and return to the camps where they were employed.  

For seven days a week in the summer, the Fireside enjoyed robust business.  You still had year-round regulars parked at the bar each night. And in addition to the year rounders, to the left of the bar were these noisy clusters of camp women and men toasting this and that, laughing raucously, and hoping to pair off for steamy embraces when they’d return to their respective camp homes.  

In the first days of July, there could be minor tensions between the year-round regulars at the Fireside and the camp crowds.  There never would be a love affair between the groups, but camp folk got to know the regulars. By the end of July, there were comfortable, even friendly, bantering exchanges between the year rounders and the camp people.

And there I was in the middle of August at the Fireside Inn with a crew of buddies from the camp where I was employed as an athletics coach.  It had been an enjoyable summer. I ate well, enjoyed the fresh air of the Pocono mountains, and made friends for life. My cross-country odyssey, while only a few weeks past, seemed like years ago. I’d never written to anyone about Mike.  Except for a few times when I regaled interested others in stories of the road, I had not even thought about him or anyone else from that journey.  

Around ten pm this one evening it was my turn to buy beers for the crew.  There were five of us at a table.  I stood from where I had been sitting and made my way to the bar to order the drinks.

“How you doing, Al?” said a fellow at the bar I’d seen nearly every time I went to the Fireside that summer.  He was a heavy-set guy who always wore a fisherman’s hat. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d seen him when a bottle of Yuengling wasn’t in his grasp.  

“Marty, how is it going?”  I said.

“Good, good.” Marty replied. “You going to score tonight?”

“Not likely,” I replied.  

“Well damn it. Go get your beer and get back to work.”  

We shared a chuckle.  Marty returned to talking with a crew of his cronies, one sitting at the bar and two or three standing behind them. Marty and the other sitter had swiveled their barstools around so that they could converse with their brethren. I waved and grinned at Marty’s friends. They gestured similarly.

I turned my attention to the bartender.  We nod and smile familiarly.  I asked for four Buds and a sweet drink. The bartender acknowledges the request and goes to grab the beers from a cooler.  I slap a 20 on the bar and stand there waiting. I overhear a conversation that Marty is having that causes me to pause.

The group of them are discussing a drowning.  There’s talk of police going up to a nearby town, and tape cordoning off an area somewhere.

“Someone drown, Marty?”  I ask. 

“Well, you can say that.”

“What happened? A kid at one of the camps?”

“Not hardly.” Says Marty.  “A woman. Young woman. And Tommy here says they think it might not be an accident.”

I pull my head back and turn toward Tommy, another fellow who is a regular in the bar. I’ve seen him throughout the summer.

“Not an accident?” I say.

“No, they found the body. Drowned.  Doesn’t look like she went there to take a dip.”

“Really.” I say. The beers are up at the bar.  The bartender asks me again what mixed drink my friend wants. I tell him and turn back to the chatting cluster.

“Yeah” continues Tommy.  “Seems like a couple of teenagers went down to a pond to, you know, to be alone.  They do the hokey pokey and then go skinny dipping and the girl notices something that is not supposed to be there.” Tommy takes a gulp of his beer.  “It aint no fish. Dead woman. Completely nude. Completely dead.”

“Wow.” I say “really.” Members of Marty’s group nod. One raises his eyebrows as if to say, “True that.”

Tommy goes on. “This is like, mid-July, when the kids see the body.  Well, the girl doesn’t want her parents to know that she was doing the hokey pokey with this guy, so she makes the boy promise to keep his mouth shut.” Tommy takes another swig. He wipes the beer from his lips with the back of his hand before continuing “But the boy, he has the heebie jeebies about it. He goes back to the pond two weeks later, and there is the naked dead gal still in the water, but now she’s washed up stuck in what used to be boat locks.  It was over at Cline Pond. Used to be a lake for a summer camp.  The camp’s out of business now—been closed for what four or five years-- but the swimming dock with the boat locks are still there. The dead body is tangled up in one of the locks all the way to the side. If you’re standing in front of the pond, you can barely see the lock where the body’s caught. Real close to the edge of the pond.”

I am listening attentively to Tommy’s narrative. “Tangled up in one of the locks” I repeat.

“Yep.  Anyway, the kid is real spooked by what he saw. The body is disfigured and he thinks nobody is going to find it now, because it is tied up in this corner of the pond. The body’s been pecked at by animals.  It’s a mess.  If it wasn’t in the water it would smell to high heaven and it’s still no rose.  But, he doesn’t tell the cops yet because of his promise to his girlfriend. He does try to persuade her to go and tell someone.  She still says no, her dad will kill her, blah blah. 

“But eventually, the boy convinces her that they got to come clean, just say they were taking a swim, blah blah.  So, they tell the police.  Officers of the law come and find the body and she, or now it, is absolutely unrecognizable. What is left of her face is, well, just awful.”

I’m startled.  I mumble something. Don’t know what. I turn to the bar and there is the beer and the drink. Change has been laid from my twenty.

I slide the change from the bar. I turn to Marty.  “They identify the woman?”

“Not much to identify. No clothes, face is swollen something terrible. Nothing to identify.”

I nod and numbly place my hands around the four beers and cocktail. 

“Well, except for that one thing, Marty” says another of the friends.  There’s a bit of a chuckle from the group. 

“What’s that?” I say. I turn my neck in their direction. Hands are still around the drinks.

Marty speaks, gesturing with his Yuengling. “Tommy here has an old high school friend who works for the force.  The woman. The dead woman, had a tattoo on one of her tits.”

I freeze with my hands around the beer.

“You okay, Al?” Asks Marty

“Which one?” I blurt.

There’s a pause and then a collective howl.

“Which one?” repeats Marty, practically choking. “It matter which one?”  The group is hysterical.

I had indeed meant which one, but I can see how the question would seem bizarre.  I do have another relevant question which will make my first inquiry seem a little less absurd.  “Which tattoo? What kind of tattoo was it?”

“Ah.” said Tommy still wiping away tears of laughter. “That’s a little better. I guess. I don’t know.  They don’t know. My buddy said there were cuts through the ink and the area got infested with something or other. They thought the tattoo might be someone’s name and would give a clue.  But it’s not a name. They just can’t tell what it is. What it was.”

“Which one?” repeats Marty. This reignites the laughter. “Which one?”

***

“Hurry up with those beers” I hear from one of my camp co-counselors at the table.

Someone comes over and retrieves the beers and drink from me. I’m staring straight ahead stunned.

“What the hell is wrong with you, Zeke?”

“Be there in a minute” I mumble.

I turn back to Marty.  “What’s the name of the pond again?”  

“Happened up at Cline Pond.”

“Where is that?”

“In Galilee.”

“Where’s Galilee?” I ask.

The group chuckles again.

“Galilee is two gas pumps and a general store.” Says Marty. “Cline is about a mile from the store.”  

“Can you tell me how to get there?”

“Well, sure, not sure you can see anything. They took the body away.”  Marty turns to the bartender.  “You gotta pen?” he says. Back to me, Marty says that he will draw a map on a napkin.


***


The next day, I make some excuse that I have to leave camp in the middle of the afternoon. I promise to be back in an hour and I am.  I go to the site, and there is nothing to see. I look at the pond.  I can see the boat locks. There is some police tape around the area, but there is nothing to see.

I have a day off later in the week. I contact the police. I ask about the drowning. They want to know who I am.  I get the sense that they think maybe I’m involved.  I become unnerved and tell them that I was curious. They respond very originally telling me that curiosity killed the cat.

I say, “I heard that there was a tattoo on the breast of the victim.”

The officer snorts. “And this is of concern to you, how?” He says.  “Sorry Mr. Curious, we are not divulging information about the incident.  Are you related to someone who is missing?”  

“No” I say.

“Okay then. We are not divulging information to the general public about the incident.”


***

Maybe it is not her. 

There’s nothing much in the local paper, The Wayne Independent. A drowning was reported in Galilee. That’s all. Nothing in the Scranton newspaper.

Maybe it is not her. Probably not her. Very unlikely it is her.


Saturday, June 26, 2021

Forty Eight

2019

Becca and I certainly had our difficulties over the years. Our relationship spanned close to a decade with many break ups for long periods.  

When I returned from the hitch-hiking trip—after a few days of bliss--the familiar tensions surfaced.  When I was ready to leave for my Pennsylvania summer job both of us were eager to be rid of the other. 

Things had been sweet during those first days after my cross-country journey. Love making, soft affectionate gazes, and delicious shared time. We’d made noise then about how we might connect over the summer. Those sounds were muted by the time my car was packed. Not much of a hug when I left. We said we’d see “what was what” when I returned to Buffalo.  Not much was what when I got back.  We were on the low end of the Sine curve for quite a while.  Up again a few years later, then down, then up. That’s how it went with us.

Our hiccups and tensions in the 70s were one thing. But what she did, helping me in 2019 with the murder went beyond the call.  Meticulous about everything. Listening again and again to all details of my comings and goings. Keeping careful notes.

We had agreed to meet in her office on the Tuesday after Father’s Day. June 18, 2019. Becca’s space was impressive. In a tall building in downtown Boston, her corner office had a jaw dropping view of the Public Garden.  Glass on two walls looking out over the city.  Secretary buzzing me in.  Big sign on the office door, Rebecca Carey. Vice President of Human Resources.

“Well done.” I say when I entered.

“Thank you.” She smiled “A long way from Buffalo.” 

“A long way.”

“We’ll use the conference room.” She said. 

Becca led me into a room that was part of her office suite.  I see she is ready for me. There are two copies of the original newspaper article. On a white board is a list of familiar names.  There are also two copies of a document that catalogued all rides taken during my 1974 hiking trip.  I learn that she’d compiled the list from my log, my map, and conversations that we had had.  Her laptop is open and, while I could not see immediately what files are up, it is apparent that she was beyond prepared for our meeting.

“Thank you.” Was all I could say when I saw how much work she had done.

“You’re welcome, Z. You deserve this.”

Very unusual for us not to take shots at one another. It would be just a matter of time, but I truly was grateful and did not want to undercut my genuine appreciation by being a wise guy just a few minutes in.

“This whole suite is your office, Becca?”

“Pretty much.” She said.

“Conference room. Little kitchen. Clothes Closet. Secretaries. Computers with multiple screens. All for you.”

“I guess so.” 

“Very impressive Becca. Congratulations.” 

“Thank you” said Becca. Then she paused. “When do you start breaking my stones?”

“Any time now.”  

“Good.  For a minute I was not quite sure if it was really you, or a kind twin was here in your stead.”

“I don’t know what got into me.”

Becca came over and touched my nose. “Let’s get going.”

She had done her homework. I was sure who had killed Jenny, but Becca was not, and wanted to go through it all.  I’d provided her with Tim’s information after Lomack had sent me the registration he’d stolen from the car.  I had found addresses for Pedro Ramirez, the husband of Mike’s sister, and Pedro Ramirez Jr. their now 50-year-old son.  I had Mike’s last name and 1974 address because I’d retained it from when he signed in to have the truck serviced in Albuquerque.  I’d done some sleuthing on my own and learned where Shel was living and where he had done time.

I look at the long list of names on Becca’s document. She has the name of every single person. Some are abbreviated or in code. Nelson, Phil Motorcycle, Grand Junction Records, Shel, Barbara, Salt Lake Toothless, Maurianne, Mustache. 

“Who is Jim Giggles?” I ask.

“Jim, the Allied Van Lines driver with the sister-in-law, who wanted to listen to those bad porn tapes.”

“Right.”

I see Chicken Farmer on the list. Cocktail Party Artie. John the Savior. One name just reads, Sonuvabitch. Another, Proselytizer. There’s Coors Not, Mechanic Lover, Corvette, Albondigas, and CD Trucker.  They are all there.  She even has listed, Buffalo Cop, as the last entry.

“You think maybe the cop who drove me to Wehrle could have done it?”

“Don’t start Z. On the document is everyone.  If you look at it, over in the column to the right, I’ve checked him as a No.”

“Sleuth.” 

“I’ve got about an hour Z before my Four.”

“ ‘Before my four’ is that how Vice Presidents talk? Do we have a hard stop at 355 then? Or can we push back on that. Is there something you need to leverage, or do you think we’ll get a quick buy-in on our strategic plan?”

Becca laughs.  “Very good. Buy some duds a notch up from your Salvation Army wardrobe and you’ll fit right in. I can send your resume around.” She flips her hand wrist up. “Really, let’s get to this. The document with everybody on it is not the key.  It’s the names on the white board. I’ve narrowed it down to these.”

Becca has listed several names on the white board.

“I’ve told you I know who it is.”

“You are infuriating, Alan. You’re so convinced. Why can’t it be Tim, for example.”

“Tim was crazy true. But how did he get there?”

“Let’s say he drove there.”

“What was his motive?

“He was crazy. He doesn’t need a rational motive. You told me that when you were in the pancake house with Jenny you went through the entire trip; all the people who picked you up and emphasized the ones who were dangerous.”

“So?”

“So when Jenny called her mother and she said ‘Kozak knows who did this’, she could have meant anyone you met on the trip. You’d told her about everyone. And you had highlighted Tim.”

“Right, I did highlight Tim, but I stressed Mike more.”

“You’re impossible Z. It could definitely be Tim.  It could even be Sonuvabitch.”

“Oh. Come on. It can’t be Sonuvabitch.”

“I agree he is unlikely, but if she met someone who said sonuvabitch every two seconds…”

“Becca. We are wasting time.” I shook my head.  “And it can’t be Shel or Barbara.”

“Why can’t it be Shel or Barbara?” Becca asks this but I get the sense she already has ruled them out. As if she is waiting for me to confirm what she has previously concluded.

“Look at the newspaper article” I say.  I point to a section in one of copies.  “‘Get a hold of Kozak. Barbara’s friend’ If it was Barbara or Shel, why does she have to say ‘Get a hold of Kozak.’ Why doesn’t she say. ‘It’s Shel’ or ‘It’s Barbara.’”

Becca plays devil’s advocate. “It could be that she meant, Kozak, who is Barbara’s friend, will be able to confirm that Barbara or Shel did it.”

“Come on” I say “After the cops came to the Smiths’s house they went next door and spoke with Barbara and Shel.”

“Maybe Barbara and Shel had someone do it.”

“Nonsense.”

“You’re probably right.” Becca says.  “But I like to be careful. And they had motives.  Shel especially.  Good Lord. When you came back that day and told me what Jenny told you in Bickfords.  I’ll never forget that.”

“He was slime. But he could not have done it if he was in the house in Elko, 2000 miles away. Remember what I found out at the Fireside.”

“What you learned in the Fireside is that Jenny is dead. Not who did it. And really, you can’t even be 100 per cent sure it was Jenny.”

“Oh Becca. We’ve been through all this.”

“You can’t just accuse people on a hunch Zeke. You’ve got to be thorough.”

“It’s more than a damned hunch.”

“It will sound like a hunch to a cop. ‘Well, officer I met a woman in Nevada who had a tattoo. And then I met a guy in New Mexico who did not like women with tattoos. And then the woman in Nevada disappeared.  The guy in New Mexico must have done it.’  Case closed. Hamilton Berger finally prosecutes successfully. Perry Mason is fucked.”

“Becca you know there’s more to it than that.  What about the article. I point again to the clipping on the conference table. ‘Kozak knows.’  I am Kozak.”

“And just how are you going to prove that.  There are three people in the solar system who know that Kozak is a nickname you once used. For three weeks!  Tell the cops that you met a guy hitchhiking who had been stationed in the Arctic. And this guy from the Arctic got bored and to pass the time made up his own language. And in this made-up language your name is Kozak. You, the Arctic guy, and me are the only people who know that you were ever called Kozak. How are you going to convince a cop that Jenny Smith was referring to you?”

“Because I told Jenny when I met with her at Bickfords that my name was Kozak.”

“This just in, Zeke. Jenny Smith is now dead and cannot corroborate. Maybe you can hunt down the pancake house waitress. Maybe she overheard you, and now 45 years later the waitress can recall it crystal clear.” Becca snaps her fingers. She points a finger at me. “I know. We can get a hold of Bunk, that ol’ sonuvabitch and he can testify. Or how about Cocktail Party Artie, now only 45,000 shots later. His mind must be sharp. He’ll remember the nickname of a hiker he picked up half a century ago.”

Becca waves at me. She’s miffed. She sits at her laptop and pushes a few buttons.

“What are you doing?”

“I was able to get some pictures of them. Maybe there is a clue here. I’ve shown you a few of these before when we were in the library in Newton.  Sit down and take a look at these with me. Maybe we can see something.”

I park myself next to Becca.  There’s a picture of Tim, that maniac, at a jail sentencing for some offense.  Looks like the nutcase that he was. Just with some more years on him. There’s another photo of the fine citizen who is Shel Worthington. These are a couple of bona fide mugshots taken when he was arrested for burglary and domestic violence.  There’s a newspaper picture of Barbara wearing sunglasses at her front door. She’s attempting to shoo away a reporter who is investigating an alleged beating.  

Becca has unearthed Facebook photos as well. Tim has a Facebook page and there are several shots of him with those wild eyes.  Barbara now is on Facebook.  Mike does not have much of a photo presence on the net.  His nephew Pedro does.  And there is a recent posting of nephew Pedro with his arm around Uncle Mike. Happy Father’s Day Uncle Mike. You’re like a father to me, reads the accompanying text.  Pedro Jr’s real father must have been a doozy if Uncle Mike is a refreshing surrogate. Mike is gray now, but still scrawny.  Still a sourpuss. No smile, some sort of scar on his chin, same smashed-up nose and spectacles that can’t find a purchase at the top of his flattened snout.

I stand up and walk around to the other side of the table.  “I’m going down there Becca. I know it is him.  The Fireside and what he told me was his mo. They were both in the same vicinity.  It’s got to be him.”

Becca is silent. She is squinting at something on the screen. I look at her and see her eyes slowly open very wide. She freezes for a moment. And then gasps.

“Zeke!” she shouts. “O my god Z. Z come over here.”

I rush around the table to where she is seated.

“Look. Look. Z.” Becca is nearly beside herself. She is starting to tear.

I am crouching over her shoulder. “What is it Becca? What are you looking at?”  All I see is one of the photos we had been staring at moments ago.

“There.” She points. “Oh my God Z. There. Do you see it?”

“Do I see what Becca? What are you looking at?”

“Let me enlarge the picture.”

She does.  I still don’t see what she is making all the fuss about.

“Look! Look Z.” She points to a spot on the screen. She then takes both hands and puts them on either side of her head. “Oh dear God.”

Finally I see it. I feel as if my feet, involuntarily leave the ground. I gasp audibly. The sound is like something that would come out of a kazoo. 

We turn and bearhug each other. 

We disengage and return our gaze to the screen. Again we stare at the photo.

There is no doubt. Now we know. We know, if we ever had an iota of doubt before. We know that Jenny Smith is dead.  And we know for sure and certain who killed her.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Forty Seven

Monday June 24rd, 1974


I arrive at the pancake house early. I don’t want to miss Jenny. I am seated in the near empty restaurant at a booth that faces the front door. The waitress has brought me coffee. I tell her that I am waiting for a friend. She leaves two menus.

I see Jenny walk in.  She’s got a hooded sweatshirt on today.  Nothing risqué. No tattoo sighting. Jeans and sweatshirt. I stand up and wave.  She sees me and smiles. She looks how I remember. About 5’ 7”, dark hair, slim with what is euphemistically called, an attractive figure--subdued today because of the loose-fitting sweatshirt.  Happy California smile.  

“I remember you.” She says as she gets to where I am standing. “Barbara’s friend.”

“Well, I was riding with Barbara’s friend.”

She extends her hand. We shake.

“I need to be on the road to Jamestown by 9.” Jenny says.  

“That’s fine.”

We sit down, across from one another. We exchange some niceties. A moment later, the waitress appears. “Welcome to Bickfords.” 

“Good morning” we both say simultaneously.

“Did you have a chance to look at the menus?” the waitress asks.

 “I’m paying.” I say to Jenny.

“Well then” Jenny turns to the waitress “what’s the special?” The waitress starts to describe it. Jenny waves her away. “Whatever it is. I’ll have whatever it is.”

I quickly scan the menu and order something that I will probably take home. I am not hungry at all. Coffee is poured for Jenny. My cup is refilled. The waitress leaves. Jenny takes a sip, and swallows. Then she leans over the table and looks at me pointedly. She asks a reasonable question.

“So who are you and why are you warning me about what?” Before I can answer she adds “If you are with Shel, I’ll bolt, and you can pay for the special. Probably not cheap.”

“Not with Shel.”

“Not sent by my parents?”

“I’ve never spoken or met your parents.” 

“You have to promise me you will not tell my folks where I am or that you saw me. Promise me or I am out of here.”

“Promise.” 

I extend my hand. We shake for the second time.

We each drink some more coffee.

Jenny says, “You just got back from going cross country?”

“Last Thursday.”

“A few days ago?”

“Yes.”

Jenny smiles. “Isn’t hiking a blast.”

“It can be.”

“Such a fun ride. You meet so many interesting people.”

“You do. Some less than swell, but interesting, yes.”

She gives that big California smile again. “Since I left home, I’ve been all over. Travelled wherever my rides took me. Each day I’ve had a general plan, but if a driver was headed another way, I might go with it. Take a detour.”

“Why’d you leave?”

She paused. “You said you are not a friend of Shel’s”

“I’m not.” I said.  “Met him that one day when you came with the mail.”

She laughed. “The mail. Right.” She shakes her head.  

“Why’d you leave?” I asked again.

Long pause. Another gulp of coffee and a swallow. “I thought we’re here because you want to warn me about something.”

“That’s true. I do.”

“So, how does it matter why I left.”

“All right never mind.” 

The waitress comes over to refill our coffee. Jenny takes some. I put a hand over my cup.  The waitress leaves. Jenny takes a sip. She nods her head a couple of times.

“Okay, Kozak you want to know why I left, I’ll tell you. But you better not tell my parents or Shel or anyone in Elko or, I swear, I will get you somehow.” The smile is gone.

“I will not tell your parents. I promise.” I do a scout’s honor signal or what I think is a scout’s honor signal. To be sure I say, “Scout’s honor.” Then add “But if you don’t want to tell me why you left, that’s fine too.”

Jenny nods again. Then sighs. “I need to get this off my chest anyway. My cousin knows but nobody else.” Jenny pauses a second, purses her lips, and then continues. “I left because of Shel.”

“Because of Shel?”

“Shel was a pervert. Shel is a pervert”

“A pervert?”

“An echo in here? Yes, a pervert.” She says. “Shel and Barbara moved into that house next to ours when I was 14.  When I got to be 15 it seemed to me that Shel would wait for a time when my folks were not home and Barbara was out. Then he’d knock on my door and ask if he could borrow something. Most of the time he’d leave with whatever it was that he said he needed, or empty handed if we didn’t have it. Sometimes before he went home, he talked about nothing standing outside our front door.”

“Okay.”

“Well, it was strange.  Always coming over when nobody was around. After a while he would try to get his foot in the door after he asked for whatever baloney thing he said he wanted to borrow.  At first, I was kind of flattered. I’m what 15 and this older married man is interested in me. I could tell he wasn’t just coming over for a kitchen utensil.” Jenny wipes her lips with a napkin. “This goes on for two years. He waits until nobody is home. Comes over. Can I borrow your whatever? Chat, chat, chat. 

“Then, well last August when I turned 17, I hiked by myself to Las Vegas.  And I got a tattoo for my birthday. A birthday present for me from me.  You saw it.  I had a lowcut suit top on when I came in with” she makes an air quotes signal ‘the mail.’”

“I saw it.”

“All men see it, Kozak. A girl, woman, whoever puts a tattoo on her breast and, I swear, 90 percent of men will stare at it even if the tattoo is on a sagging grandmother.”

“I saw it.”

“No doubt. Anyway, it was at the end of last August when I am lying in the backyard getting some sun. I’ve got on a bathing suit top on.  Suddenly, on this bright sunny morning there is a shadow over me. I squint up and it’s Shel.

“He’s got this dirty old man smirk on which is, you know, appropriate for him since he was a dirty old man.  I say something like, ‘Shel. Shel, what are you doing here?’ What does he say? He says, ‘Nice tats.’ Very clever right.”

“Not especially original.”

“Shel was not especially original.  Anyway, he goes over to the side of the house where we have a folding chair and he opens it and sits next to me.

“Again, it is a little flattering, but the guy is about the same age as my dad maybe older. I chat with him a while and then tell him I have to go in. I didn’t have to go in, but I didn’t want him talking to my chest any longer, you know?”

“Sure.” I say.

“But the thing is, after that, he starts coming by more frequently, practically every week.  My parents go to church on Sundays. I told them no way when I was like 14.  So I don’t go. They go, meet up with another couple, after services they go for coffee. Blah blah blah. Not for me.  Barbara has some church thing to do on Sundays also.  So, whenever Barbara was out, and my parents were out, I got a visitor.’

“Didn’t you tell him you were not interested.”

“If I tell him I’m not interested, I’m like accusing him of being interested.”

“So?”

“Yo Kozak, I’d just turned 17.  I don’t know anything other than this old guy keeps staring at my tits. Sorry. Staring at me.”

“It’s okay.”

The waitress comes by with the food. We wait until the waitress is gone.  Jenna’s plate is stacked with pancakes and there’s a generous portion of potatoes, bacon and eggs.

“Are you going to eat all that?”

“This could be breakfast lunch and dinner today, Kozak.”

“Okay, so you were saying that Shel was staring at you.”  

Jenny nods. “It gets to the point that I start dressing like a nun on Sunday mornings. Even consider going to church myself, but that would be pushing it.  Well this happens for nearly a year. Then one day just a few months ago, when he comes over he asks for a cup of coffee. I make coffee. When I lean over to put his cup on the table.  He goes to kiss me. I don’t know what to do.  So, I kiss him back.”

“You kissed him back.”

“I did. It was stupid but I did. And, even though the guy is an old guy, it felt sort of good. Maybe I’m weird but it felt, then, kind of good. Then, the pervert tries to feel me up.  He’s twenty gazillion years older and married to the woman next door. He tries to feel me up. I push him away.  But the next week when he comes by, he doesn’t even ask for coffee. He just comes in and kisses me. And I don’t push him away when he goes to feel me up.  When he leaves I immediately feel like a slut.

“Even so, even though I felt like a slut then, the next week--and I can’t believe I did this--but the next week on Sunday when he comes in, I greet him with a lowcut top.  He practically froths at the mouth.  In no time he’s got his hands all over me. And well.  I can’t believe I am telling you this. And I am plenty ashamed. But, what I did was.  Well, I went down on him.” Jenny rolls her eyes.  “Dumb or what?  Dumb. Dumb, Dumb.

“This is now like the third week in May.  As soon as he leaves my house and goes next door carting this disgusting smile on his disgusting face, I feel like the worst slut in the world. I vow to myself that this has got to stop. Next week, I say to myself, next week I am going to tell him that this has to stop.  

“Okay, so the week is moving along and I am determined to end it on Sunday. Then on the Saturday before, Shel comes over. This is the Saturday before I meet you, Kozak.  My father is home, my mom is shopping. Shel says he is there to borrow a tool, some hammer or something.  My dad goes to get the hammer or whatever. As soon as my dad leaves, Shel grabs me and puts some mail in my hand.  He tells me to come over to his house on Sunday morning. He has some magazines he wants me to see. Disgusting. He tells me that when I come over to make damn sure he can see my tattoo, if I knew what he meant. The guy is bossing me around.” Jenna mimics Shel, “ ‘Make damn sure I can see your tattoo if you know what I mean.’

“Of course, I knew what he meant. I ask what’s what with the mail. He says in the off-chance Barbara is there, I can use the letters as an excuse. Barbara, he says, is complaining about having to go wherever she goes on Sunday, but probably is going to go anyway. But in case she doesn’t, I am supposed to say that there was a bad delivery. Some baloney like that.

“My dad comes back with the hammer. Shel leaves and I say to myself--if I had any doubt before—that now for sure, enough is enough. I am not messing with this pervert again.  I am determined that I will break up with him the next day. I figure I will go over to his house, wear the top he wants, give him another blow job but tell him after that this has to stop and I am ending it.  He tries to make a scene, well, I’ll have his nuts in my hand.

“And that is what I came over to do, but then I run into the army that is you, Barbara, Barbara’s friend and Shel in the living room. So, I do the wrong mail dance and leave in a hurry. That night, Shel comes over on some pretense, and I pull him aside and tell him I can’t see him anymore. I tell him it is absolutely over.  He gets very upset. I tell him to hush up because my parents are around. He leaves but he is upset.

“The next day I go to school.  There’s a test I need to take and a graduation rehearsal.  I come out of school after the rehearsal and there is Shel with his car waiting for me in the school parking lot. 

“Well, I ask him what he is doing there, and he says he is there to pick me up.  I don’t want to be seen outside with him, so I jump into the car.  He then drives me on this winding road to a spot ‘to talk.’  Talk. Right. He hasn’t shut off the engine before he has his dick out of his pants. I tell him, no, we are done and he starts to grab me.

“I get scared, bolt from the car and run. He gets out, chases me, and gets a hold of my shirt and rips it. I run faster.  He can’t keep up, the old slob.  I keep running, take a short cut to my house. He’s got to get back in his car and drive down the windy road.  I get to the house before he does. My parents are still at work. I go in the back door, grab some clothes and things, stuff it all in my backpack, take all the money I have in the world, and get the hell out of there. I’m gone before the pervert is back in his own driveway.” 

Jenny sighs.  “And now, Kozak” she sighs again. “I am here.

“I’m not going back there. I can’t face my folks after that. And I don’t want to look at Shel’s sick face ever again.”

Jenny begins to devour her food.   

“When I called your cousin she thought I was Shel.”

Jenny’s mouth is half full. Her head over the plate of food. “The bastard chased after me.  He tried to find out where I was. Somehow he got my cousin’s phone number and kept calling there.”


***


We are silent for a spell. Jenny continues to snort her breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I poke at my food.

“So, that’s why I am here.” Jenny says after a gulp of coffee. “Now, why are you here? And how the hell did you get my cousin’s phone number?”

I go into my wallet and pull out the picture I found on the bulletin board at UCLA.

She smiles. “Where did you find that?”

I tell her.

“Yeah, I went into a drug store and took a bunch of pictures. I figured they would help me get lifts.  And they have.” Jenny reaches into her pack.  She holds up several photos. “I’ve got a few more.”

“I flipped the picture over. Why include the phone number and your name.”

“Just wrote my first name.  So what?” Jenny shrugs. “My cousin can keep her mouth shut. I figured if a potential lift called that number, she could take a message about where the rider might be. I would call her periodically and she could let me know.”

“Did you think a revealing photo like that could be dangerous.”

Jenny leaned over “Listen, Kozak I’ve hitch-hiked for years. I’ll be 18 in less than two months.  I can take care of myself.”  With that Jenny reaches again into her bag and pulls out a knife. It reminds me a bit of Mike’s, but it is not as large.  “I am one tough kid Kozak. I also carry a can of pepper spray.”

Jenny puts the knife away. “You told my cousin I might be in some danger. Why?

“I met some strange people on my journey.”

She smiled.  “Tell me about it. They are out there.  Who’d you meet?”

“A lot.”

“I want to hear.”

“How much do you want to hear?” 

“Who’d you meet? Tell me it all. It’s only a quarter past 8.  If I don’t leave for Jamestown at 9 on the button it will be okay.”

“You sure? There are a host of characters.”

The big California smile is back on Jenny.  “Hit me with the entire cast.”

“Okay.” I take out my map.  Jenny comes over and sits on my side of the booth. And, just as I did with Becca a few days earlier, I go through each stop and the major rides.  But as opposed to the way I narrated events for Becca, in this iteration I highlight the stops that were dangerous, trying not to be transparently paternal.”  

Jenny got a kick out of my stories.  She howled when I described Nelson’s penchant for stopping at all the rest stops and how Tim backed down the highway.  She was very interested in Phil the guy with the motorcycle who picked me up in Salt Lake. 

When I came to Mike I paused.  “Hey, Jenny” I said “this guy was real dangerous.  He told me he has killed women.”

“Killed women? right. Ha. Baloney”

“I know I tend to agree, but he said, and this is why I felt some urgency to meet with you, he told me that he particularly is out to get women who have tattoos. Scrawny guy, smashed nose, wire rimmed glasses.”

“Ha” said Jenny again.  “What are the chances that I will run into him.  In this whole country? Besides he’s full of crap.” Jenny goes into mimic mode again “I kill chics with tattoos.’ Ha. Don’t worry about me Kozak. I will be fine. Is that really what you wanted to warn me about? Some guy with a smashed nose you met in New Mexico who I might bump into in, say, Jamestown?”

I nod my head a few times.  “I know it’s unlikely.”

“Ya think?”

 I smile. Her attitude relieves me. I feel a bit like a goof because now, with Jenny’s dismissive comments, danger seems especially remote. 

I finish up the travelogue. Jenny is getting ready to leave. After the waitress takes my dough, I ask Jenny if there is some end game. Will she just keep hiking around the country forever?  

Jenny nods. “Good question. A driver I met says there are lots of summer jobs in New York in the Catskill mountains.  She said there are a bunch of hotels that need cleaners and chambermaids. I’m going to try and wind up there or thereabouts next week, early July. If there are as many hotels as she said, I will find work for the summer. Then who knows what.” There’s a pause. “Remember, Kozak, you promised not to tell my folks.”

“I won’t Jenny. Scout’s honor.”

“Well, I better be going.  Do me a favor and take me to the junction of 60 and 20. It’s not far from here. Then it is a straight shot to Jamestown.”

“Sure.” I say.  

Jenny says that she has to hit the restroom.  When she returns, she picks up her gear from the booth seat.  I stand too and reach for the keys in my pocket.  “Oh, I almost forgot.” I say.

“What did you almost forget?”

“Last night, my girlfriend gave me something to give to you.” I pull out the gift and hand it to Jenny.

“That’s nice.” She says. She is touched even before she gives it much of a look.

“It’s for good luck.” I say.

Jenny takes some time to hold and stare at the gift. There are tears on the way.  The gift is a rabbit’s foot key chain. On the chain where keys would ordinarily be attached, is a tiny charm in the shape of a moon and star.

“You told her about the tattoo that you, uh, noticed.”

“I did.”

Jenny gives that big California smile again. There’s some moisture around the eyes. The smile has a touch of defiance in it. “I love my tattoo. Right on my chest. Above my heart.” She touches her sweatshirt between her breasts.  “You know what the moon and star tattoo stands for?” she doesn’t wait for me to respond.  “The tattoo stands for brightness illuminating the darkness. That’s what I will be. That’s what we all should be.  Light illuminating darkness.”

I smile. She’s a naïve kid. But sweet. “Very good.” I say “Very true.”

“Don’t worry about me, Kozak. Nobody is going to turn off my light. But thanks for the warnings anyway.”

I drive Jenny Smith to the junction of route 20 and 60.  She gets out of the car and waves goodbye to me with the rabbit’s foot still clutched in her hand. I lower my window and stick my hand out to wave back.  “Goodbye Kozak” she shouts. 

Goodbye Kozak indeed. No need for my nom de guerre any longer.   The trip is over.

Both Jenny and Kozak exit my life for half a century. 

The trip is not over.


Forty Six

Last night had been a wonderful one with Becca.  Our regular tensions did not have a chance to surface.  After my bath, affection, longing, attraction, and lust comingled until we fell asleep in each other’s arms. This morning, we engaged once again. Our activity generated a sweet vestigial soreness for us both.  Becca got up and ran a bath for herself. I lay on the bed thinking of the night, and then, unavoidably, the unfinished business of the journey surfaced to my consciousness.   

With towels around her body and hair, Becca returned to the bedroom and told me that she had made coffee. She had to be at work at noon and wanted to hear more about the trip before she left for the day.  I slunk out of bed and put on a pair of her sweatpants and an oversized tee shirt that I found folded neatly in a drawer.  I retrieved the map and log from the backpack.  

The backpack reminded me. As I came out of the bedroom I asked, “Did I tell you what happened when I contacted Steve’s cousin in Los Angeles?”

“Start from the beginning Z.”

And I do.  I spread out the map across what passes for her dining room table.  I open the log to the first page. And I go through the details of the trip, every stop; including the parts that I’d left out from the digested version I’d relayed the night before. We sat on the same side of the table, so Becca could follow the map stops along with me.  She’d taken out a lined pad and was making notes. She asked questions now and then and laughed when I described some of the incidents. There was no laughing when I relayed my encounters with Tim and Mike.  There were occasional gasps and mutterings: “You’re kidding” and “oh my God” and “you were crazy”.

“Did you write the letter?” she asked.

I tell her I did not.

She nodded. “Probably doesn’t matter.” But she said that to make me feel ok about it.

It was close to eleven when I completed the travelogue. Becca stood up from the table and kissed me on the top of the head.  She folded the notes she’d taken and placed the papers in an envelope that she’d taken out ahead of time. 

“I’ve got to get dressed for work.” She said.

She went into the bedroom and came out fifteen minutes later looking like the professional she soon would become. We hugged at the top of the stairs.


***


When Becca leaves, I try to read today’s newspaper, but I cannot.  There are too many interfering thoughts surfacing.  Blissful recollections of the night before alternate with a lingering sense that I need to do something. 

I open my wallet and take out the photo of Jenny that I removed from the bulletin board at UCLA.  I stare at the picture for a few seconds, then turn the photo over.  After a few minutes, I dial the number that is written on the back.

When the call is answered, I hear a woman’s voice--a woman’s angry and exasperated voice.

“Shel, do not call here again.” The phone is slammed down.

My head moves back involuntarily. What the hell was that?

I dial again.

“Goddamn it Shel…”

I interrupt. “This is not Shel. Don’t hang up.’

“Shel, I am tired of this bullshit.”

“This is not Shel.”

“Who is this?”

“I’m looking for Jennifer.  Am I speaking to Jennifer?”

“No. You are not speaking to Jennifer.

“May I speak with her?” I ask.

There’s a pause, then a guarded question: “How did you get this number?”

“Look, I know this will seem strange, but I met Jenny once in Elko. Then I saw a picture of her posted on a bulletin board at UCLA.  On the back of the photo was this number.’

“Shel. Don’t fuck with me.”

“Not Shel. Not Shel.”

“Okay, who is this?”

I hesitate. “Kozak” I say.

“Kozak?”

“Kozak. It’s a nickname. Look, is she there?”

“Jenny’s not here.”

“Can you get a message to her from me.”

A pause.  Then another guarded question: “What’s the message?”

“Tell her I am the guy she met at Barbara’s house, her next door neighbor in Elko.  Tell her I was hitch-hiking, and she met me there when she came over to Barbara’s house.”

“Okay.” She said slowly. “Is that the message?”

“No. The message is that I think she might be in trouble. Could be in trouble.”

There’s a sigh.  “Hey Kozak, or whoever you are. She’s not going back to Elko.”

“I’m not going to ask her to go back. It’s not that. Look, it all might be nothing. It probably is nothing, but I think she could be, might be, in danger. Can you please ask her to call me?  She can call collect.” I give her Becca’s number.   

Whoever I am speaking with continues cautiously, “I’m not sure when I will hear from Jenny again.”

“Whenever you do…” I begin

She interrupts me, “I’ll give her your message when/if I hear from her, but there is no guarantee she will want to call you.”

“Look, please tell her it is important or could be important. And that I’m the hitchhiker she met at her next-door neighbor’s house. And I don’t want to return her  to Nevada. I’m now back home in New York. Western New York. Especially, if her travels take her anywhere near Western New York, please ask her to call me.”

“Okay. If she calls, I’ll tell her.”

“Thank you.  Who am I speaking to?”

Another pause. “You’re speaking to the Wicked Witch of the West. Look Kozak nickname or whoever you are, if she calls, I’ll give her your message.”

I don’t hear from Jenny that day June 21st. When Becca comes home, I tell her about the phone call and what I will do if she calls.  I get a pat on the head. A good boy pat. 

I don’t hear from Jenny on the 22nd.   “I gave it a shot” I say to Becca that night.

“You did.  You did.”

On the evening of Sunday June 23rd we're watching a show on the tube when the phone rings.  Becca goes to the kitchen, picks up the wall phone, and answers.  

“A collect call from Jenny” she repeats loudly for my benefit.  

I hop up from the couch and grab the phone.

“We’ll accept the charges.” I tell the operator. I signal to Becca with my thumb up. She gives me a thumbs up back.  I pull the extension cord as far as I can. It lets me go into the bathroom. I sit on top of the toilet bowl lid.

“Jenny” I say.

“Is this, Kozak?”

“Yes. Listen Jenny. Thanks for calling. I’m the guy you met at Barbara’s in Elko.”

“That’s what my cousin said. I’m not going back to Elko.”

“I don’t want that.  Look. I am in Buffalo now.  But I want to talk with you.  I need to talk with you. I met someone while hiking who I think could be dangerous.”

She repeats what I said in a monotone. “You met someone hiking that you think could be dangerous.”

“It’s unlikely but possible.”

“Look, Kozak or whoever you are. I am fine.  Don’t worry about me. How, I mean how, is someone you met dangerous to me?”

“Can I meet with you?’

“Now you sound dangerous.”

“I’m not. Look, can I meet with you.”

“This sounds pretty weird to me. Who are you again?”

“Last month, I was in your neighbor’s living room. You came in with the mail that had been delivered to your home by mistake.”

“Right.” She snorts a laugh. “The mail. Yes, I remember that day.  I remember people being there.”

“Where are you?” 

“At a Holiday Inn.”. 

“There are more than one of them.”

 “No kidding. My cousin said to call if I got anywhere near western New York. I’m staying at a Holiday Inn tonight about thirty miles from Jamestown. Tomorrow I am heading to Jamestown.”

“Wait a minute. Hold on.” I come out of the bathroom and find a state map for New York. It’s easy to find.  Becca has placed state maps neatly in a folder that’s filed in a bookcase. They’re labeled, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio… “I’m back. Ok. Where is this Holiday Inn?”

“It’s near where routes 60 and 20 meet, north of Jamestown.”

It takes me a moment, but I find the intersection.  “That’s about an hour from where I am. Give or take. How about I meet you at the Holiday Inn early tomorrow morning.”

“I’m not meeting you at a hotel Kozak.”

“Fair enough.  Is there a restaurant or some place to meet nearby?”

“There’s a pancake house. It’s got more than pancakes but it is called a pancake house. I ate there tonight. Don’t remember the exact name, but it is on 60 near the intersection. Hey, do you think this is really necessary?”

“Yes. I mean it might be.”

“Okay. Get to the pancake house by 730 tomorrow morning.”

“I can do that.”

“Be there by 7:30 or I am leaving. I want to start hiking by 9 at the latest.”

“I’ll see you there.”

“Wear a sign that says Kozak or something.”

“I’ll be there at 730.”

“Okay. See you.” Says Jenny and then she hangs up.


***


“How did it go?” Said Becca.

“I’m meeting her tomorrow about an hour from here. Meeting her at 730”

“Let’s move cars now then.”  

I’d sublet my apartment for the summer. For the entire time I was away my car was parked at the top of a one lane long driveway by the side of Becca’s unit.  Becca’s car is in the same driveway parked behind mine. We need to reverse the order of our cars.  I’d be leaving well before she would the next morning.

We go down the stairs and outside to the driveway. When we finish the maneuver, we meet at the front door before walking back up.  Becca hands me something.

“I had this in my car.  Forgot to bring it up. Give it to Jenny tomorrow.”

“What is it?”

“It’s for good luck.  I saw the charm at K-Mart the other day and thought of Jenny. It’s cheap, but still…Give it to Jenny when you see her.”