Saturday, January 19, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Seventeen

After my wine-enhanced debacle at the Crescent City AA meeting, I returned to the mobile home court in Brookings, where I began steadfastly packing. My purpose was to distance myself from what I’d lost, get located, possibly visit Wolfram, but definitely immerse myself in some writing projects, This time, there was no thought of forwarding or storage; my goal was to travel light, to get rid of physical things that might remind me of Rae.

A local supermarket was a good source for boxes. I began with the cooking utensils, starting with an electric rice steamer that had attracted Rae on one of our ventures to Grants Pass. Then came her clothing, which I folded with the meticulousness and detail born of ominous purpose.

Later in the afternoon, as I filled another large plastic bag with material for discard, I was distracted by a jaunty knock at the door. The caller, an amiable, bushy-browed man into his fifties, wore a baseball cap and patterned golf pants. He carried a clipboard. “Lady of the mobile home in?”

“Gone off to visit relatives in Grants Pass,” I said, returning to my work.

He watched me for a few log moments, then snickered at some interior humor. “Usually it’s the man who visits relatives while the wife does the cleaning.”

In our life style, we had to consider everyone on a more survival-oriented scale. This fellow could be just another good old boy, or he could be a well-packaged serious problem. I played it out, bringing him around to stating his business.

“The little lady, she won herself a free five-by-seven enlargement of a candid camera shot our man took of her shopping over at the mall.” He pulled a pack of snapshots from his clipboard, riffled through it, then presented one to me. “Sam Apthecker,” he said. “People tend to call me Sam. I’ll be honest with you, I’m retired, but I work on commission from Deitz, the photographer. This here==“ he extended the photo toward me. I made no move to accept it. “This here’s a promotion, Deitz, he figures you’ll like his work and maybe want a portrait of the little lady. He does color, black-ad-white, sepia tone, and hand tint. That’s where I come in—me and my commission.” He reached the photo closer toward me. “The snapshot here’s a gift. So’s the five-by-seven enlargement. No strings.”

Squinting at the snapshot, I decided on a gamble. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong place. I’ve never seen this woman before.” The woman in the photo was Rae, but he didn’t have to know that.

Sam Apthecker didn’t miss a beat, which was making me even more suspicious. “Son of a gun,” he shook his head. “Lady in this picture, she gave this very address. Now why do you suppose she’d do a thing like that?”

“Maybe to get rid of you.”

Perhaps Sam Apthecker was at the moment thinking he’d made a mistake. It was also possible he was thinking me as cool a character as I considered him. Whether his response was innocent or a ploy, I was buying some time. When he came back, I’d be gone. If he were someone for me to suspect, he’d have a cold trail.

Apthecker scratched his head through his baseball cap a few times, said son of a gun a few more times, and made his way out into the late afternoon. I returned to my packing for another half hour or so, the sauntered over to the mobile home park convenience store, where I bought a pack of cigarettes and made for the Brookings phone book. There was a listing for Dietz the photographer, there was also a listing for Apthecker, Saml L which I called.

A taped message informed me I’d reached the Aptheckers, Sam and Jenny. “We’ve taken the month off to visit the kids and grandkids in Astoria and Vancouver. Ma didn’t want me to say how long we’d be gone because she’s counting on the dishes and silverware all being here when we get back,” There were a few more snippets of Apthecker wit, a local number and a number in Astoria to call if there was anything serious.

My questions were not comfortable ones: Who was looking for Rae and why?

After a take-out supper of hamburgers and a six-pack of Henry Weinhart beer, I attacked my own things, being merciless about the books I’d leave behind. It was nearly midnight when I got to Rae’s identity files, driver’s licenses for several states, ATM cards, social security cards, and the like. My plan was to take these with me and systematically destroy and scatter them along my new route. I’d cope with calling the appropriate trash hall and Good Will the next morning, attacking the problem of what next, Howard Camden, when I was under way somewhere. Thanks to the last bottle of Henry Weinhart, I got to sleep just after eleven.

Living in motels, furnished apartments, trailer courts, and mobile home parks, you grow accustomed to random noises and outbursts, particularly at night, when the denizens of the transient life so often cry out in anguish, frustration, or the remembrance of more comfortable times. Learning to sleep through or at least around such outbursts is an accomplishment for which there should be some form of merit badge.

Leading the kind of life Rae and I were accustomed to, you learn precautions the average person doesn’t think of. Items such as collar stays, credit cards, Venetian blind slats, and toothpicks would cause no eyebrows to raise were they discovered in the homes of a sales person, a waiter, or even a college-level instructor. In the possession of a robbery suspect, they enhance a presumption of guilt.

In the right hands, such implements are the Swiss Army knives of burglars and robbers. They can get you into buildings, rooms, and automobiles with minimal effort required. A policeman would think nothing of you having an American Express or Visa Gold, Gentle Reader, but in our hands, the policeman’s presumption begins to build. Were the same policeman to find our set of lock picks, battery-powered drills, and chisels, the presumption would grow nasty indeed.

You also learn another practical truth in the life: If “they” are going to come for you, “they” will probably arriver early in the morning, and if “they” do come for you, it will be in a relatively well-thought-out maneuver, designed to catch you when you are most vulnerable. Beyond not being “there” when “they” come for you, there isn’t much you can do about it.

It did not seem as though I’d been asleep too long before I heard an angry outcry. “What the hell kind of mess is this?”

Even though it had roused me, my first sense of it was that someone in the mobile home park was cursing some perceived flaw or inequity in the quality of her life. But then came the sense of the voice being too close to be from one of the neighboring homes. I heard a scrape of boxes skidding across linoleum, possibly being pushed. Another possibility was of the boxes being kicked. “What the goddamned hell is going on?” Then the voice called my name. “Howard, what is all this—this business?”

My first thought was Mrs. Birdwell, the crusty park manager, who called everyone by first name, had opinions on everything from immigration to the way to arrange trash for a pick-up. My anger flared in the darkness of my drowsy mind. I was then disabused of my thoughts of Mrs. Birdwell by an altogether other presence and a voice in the entryway to the sleeping area. “Will you please tell me what the hell kind of stunt you are up to with these boxes?

I’m not sure which of us hit the light switch, but no matter. The lights were on and Rae and I were blinking at each other in the sudden glare.

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