02
Sep
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 10

In this the penultimate installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir, things get, well, Shakespearean, for lack of a better term (if they hadn’t already — in the last installment, our private eye hero Jome’s client took a somnabulatory swipe with a knife at his jugular).

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).

 

 

Chapter 33

Always the rain. Carol let me borrow the bottle for the night when I left her place around 4:30. Hot and achy, I was also febrile and on the verge of being totally delusional. I’d refused Carol’s offer to call a taxi service. To steel myself for the trek to my apartment I drank tiny gulps from the bottle.

It was already impinging on darkness. Over to the east through a crook in the sepulchral buildings the river was just a sound that carried meekly. Streetlights were snapping on, threw crooked lights onto the pavement. A woman with stringy hair propositioned me in front of the county clerk’s office. I shook my head. Looking back after her I saw that she was not there, recollecting her face as the face of one of my ex-wives. Sure, I was demented.

At 12th Street I leaned against a statue of a city founder that had been erected before the city he founded realized he’d embezzled thousands and had drunk himself to death in one of those stories that keeps getting retold. The same stringy-haired prostitute came back and inquired again if I might like to have a lot of fun. I dug my hands into my pockets and walked on. She walked alongside me for three blocks and receded off with the other phantoms that stalk a man at his lowest.

It took me two hours and 30 minutes to go 30 blocks, regularly a 40-minute jaunt. Where had I been? Walking had become another dream, along with the city, the past and the Longtrees. I buried myself in the bed. Of course I did not sleep. An hour later I was up.

I did what I usually do on a Wednesday night: I boiled three eggs and for minutes I watched them crack and bubble up to the surface. I was jittery, on the border of becoming completely anxious, and my neck ached bad. I was still drinking, but the liquor had ceased working.

Of all people it was Richard Longtree who called to give me the news.

An hour earlier Sue Longtree slid into a relaxing bath with a hairdryer, wearing a shower cap, etcetera. The hairdryer was plugged into a socket and the shower cap was a mystery.

“I pulled her out of the tub,” Richard said in his refined lisp. “She was still twitching. There was soap all over her body if you can imagine that.”

“What was she wearing a shower cap for if she was planning to kill herself?”

“I didn’t inquire.”

“Why are you calling me, Richard?”

“Because I’d like to talk to you.”

“Is that a threat?”

“You were employed by her,” he said sourly.

“I know. That was my third mistake.”

“And I’d like to show you something and maybe you can figure it out.”

“Drop by the office. If you’re hungry I have a few extra hardboiled eggs.”

“Thank you, but I am not hungry. Come by my hotel. The Melancthon. I’ll be the one in the lobby grieving.”

The fact that Sue was dead sunk in when I put the phone down. Too bad. I liked her and her red hair. I liked her red hair a lot. But at the moment I was too transfixed by my own grief to weep over her. Women like her are exquisitely tuned to self-annihilate at a definable point. You don’t have to know when it will be. Just that it will be big and loud. Why I wasn’t able to feel anything for a woman I’d slept with so recently was the real dilemma. I honestly hated her.

I had some more whiskey, emptied out the bottle and stumbled around in the kitchen.

I thought a bit about Sue as the windows cried rain, shucking the eggs and eating them out of the pan.

I stared at the moist yellow yolk in a bitten egg.

Then at the turgid sky.

And back at the egg.

Absolutely no connection.

I threw on a raincoat.

Cowper and a bland-looking uniformed officer were sitting in the hallway on two folding chairs I’d never seen in the building before.

“You bring those chairs with you for the stake-out?” I asked.

“You have egg on your face,” Cowper said in his weary voice. Even his suit looked bored. Bored and wrinkled. And clean.

“Why didn’t you just knock on my door.”

“We wanted to surprise you, Jome. And you having egg on your face is not an expression. There’s egg on your face.”

I wiped the egg away.

“Did Sue leave a note?” I asked.

“Aren’t we investigating you?” Cowper asked. His ever-present bent cigarette was held behind his ear.

“She leave a note or not?”

“You’re kind of forward, aren’t you,” the officer sad.

“Progress tends to go that way.”

“There was a note,” Cowper said, shooting the officer a look.

“What did it say, if you don’t mind.”

“It didn’t say anything, and I do mind. Left on the edge of the tub and the water erased the ink.” Cowper paused, glancing back at the officer scornfully. “There’s something not quite right about anything,” Cowper said. “Why am I thinking that?” he directed at me. “I’m not sure why I’m filling you in, but I suppose it’s because I’m soft. Would you like to explain any of it? Weren’t you with her recently?”

“Where’d you get that?” I asked.

“I asked.”

“I’m cursed,” I said, opening my arms wide. “Both my mother and father died during my birth. A few distant cousins, too.”

“You should have been a fucking colonel,” the officer said, and Cowper looked at him like he was going to hit him in the stomach.

“Yeah,” I said. “Or a little compelling.”

Cowper lifted his small frame off the chair and then picked up the chair. The officer followed suit, none to pleased by the act of moving.

“What are we going to do now?” the officer asked Cowper.

“Just shut up,” Cowper said. “Some people would like to know,” he said to me, “what you’ve been doing with the Longtree business. By some people, I mean me. And by business I don’t mean business. How about a chat?”

“I don’t think I have the time right now. I’m going to meet an idiot.”

“Did I mention that the Longtree broad’s hands were tied behind her with her own bra?”

“The woman was indescribable and it wasn’t beyond her to tie herself up. And no, you didn’t mention that.”

“You don’t really care about her, do you?”

“I never claimed to.”

They carried their chairs behind me and down the stairs and watched me from the front steps as I hailed a cab.

 

Chapter 34

The effeminate bandleader was mopping his brow in the hotel lobby, hand resting on a Persian rug draped over the back of the plush couch. Around him frightened bellhops, eager for tips, bustled like billiard balls on a hustler’s table. Wealthy vacationers chatted nearby about how much money they had. Dark red was the theme of the Melancthon Hotel and there were no variations on that repetitive theme.

Richard was wearing a wrinkled tuxedo that did his short stature and shining head no favors. His bow-tie was completely upended, as though it were threatening him.

“Well, Jome, here we are,” he said, rising lugubriously. “Just two thoughtless jerks in a motel lobby somewhere.”

“Good introduction,” I said. “Is there anything else on your mind?”

“How’s my dead wife doing?”

“Have a seat, Richard. You’re going to get upset.”

“Did you get what I just said?”

“Yeah. And I replied that you should sit down probably.”

“It’s isn’t easy to sit down at a time like this.”

“Try it. Sit down, Richard.”

He straightened his bow-tie without any improvement and plunked back onto the couch.

“OK,” he said. “I’m sitting.”

I lowered myself beside him and crossed my legs. Drawn deeply into the tux Richard looked like he was striving to spontaneously combust.

“You look bad,” he said.

“I feel bad. Last time I slept was for a few moments right after your wife tried to kill me.”

There was no surprise in him. “Why’d she do that?”

“She didn’t mean to. I was just nearby.”

“I should feel something, shouldn’t I?” he asked himself, then answered: “But I don’t. I’m too lazy to have emotions of any kind.”

“Are you going to tell me you loved her or something?”

“If by love you mean I liked to see her suffer, then yes, I did love her.”

People were stomping out of the lobby for an evening stroll or a dinner engagement. Whenever the revolving doors moved you could hear a blast of hammering rain. The guy I knew as Sid Lewishom entered the lobby in his blue sweater and corduroy pants, saw me and blushed. Immediately he sequestered himself in one of the phone booths.

“What day is this?” Richard asked.

I thought and I couldn’t think. “I don’t know.”

“Neither do I.” he said. “But here’s something interesting. I loved Sue, I guess, but I really loved her money and I was always faithful, while she was alive, to her money.”

“What money?” I asked. “I thought she was buying fruit with your money?”

Richard laughed a cheeky laugh, separated his lips to say something and let them flap open without talking. I hated him for his weakness and for everything his wife had represented.

“I think I did love her,” he said. “Can I show you something, Jome?”

Richard held out his hand like he was going to escort me to a dance.

“Some etchings?” I asked, getting to my feet.

We rode the elevator to the ninth floor. Neither of us spoke. Smells of cleaning chemicals, deodorizers, wet laundry and Richard’s eau de cologne hugged the air inside his suite. He showed me the bathroom first. A tub full of water.

“I was in the tub when the call came that she’d drowned,” Richard said. “I can’t bring myself to drain it. Isn’t that funny.”

“It depends on what you think is funny.”

“I suppose it does,” he said. “I have never appreciated irony as I should.”

On the desk by the curtained window there was a stack of records on a portable record player and a carton of cigarettes and some keys. Then I noticed the serpentine woman on the bed. She was tall and fair-skinned, with explosive blue eyes and legs that could have touched the bottom of the ocean.

“Who’s she?” I asked.

Richard squatted down beside her and ran a handed through the girl’s auburn hair. “She’s just a whore,” Richard said.

“He likes to watch me have sex with myself,” the girl said in a cute, sighing voice, the voice of a sweet girl trying too hard not to be a sweet girl. “I’m trying to be an actress and he says it’s good practice to have people watch you doing embarrassing things.”

“She’s trying to be an actress,” Richard explained. “And I did tell her that once or twice. She listens and she’s a good girl. Aren’t you a good girl?”

“I’m a pretty good girl,” she agreed. Richard’s small eyes shone when he stared at her.

He went to the sideboard and poured bourbon into two glasses and dangled one in front of me. His hands trembled and some of the whiskey splattered onto his black loafers. It was painful to swallow but I drank it down regardless. Richard lit a cigarette and wedged it in the ashtray he was carrying. Then absent-mindedly he lit another, set aside the ashtray, and loaded the second one into a fancy pearl holder.

“I may quit the music business,” he said.

“That sounds like it would be to the advantage of the music business,” the girl said and turned over on her side away from us.

“You’re being rude,” Richard said to the girl.

“You never let me leave this room. How am I going to become an actress if I can’t leave this room?”

Richard smoked daintily, like a puppet would. He stared into his bourbon.

“So what is it?” I asked him.

“Just this. You asked about Sue’s money. Where she got it.”

“I remember.”

“Have you ever encountered the name Dominic Early?”

I wasn’t used to being surprised. “Constantly.”

Richard puffed in a self-satisfied manner on his cigarette. The smoke was enveloping the room. The girl on the bed waved her arm to disperse the evasive clouds.

“Sue is Dominic Early,” Richard said. “That must be worth something to you.”

“It would be if I knew what you were talking about.”

“Early is a pseudonym. Sue’s a mystery writer. It’s actually pretty bad stuff but people like pretty bad stuff and it sells well. That’s why I hired those fools to tail you. Thought you and Sue were cavorting, if you know what I mean.”

I set the glass down on the table.

“You’ve known it for a while?” I asked dumbly. “About Sue being Early?”

“Quite a while,” he said. “I thought maybe I could use it against her. There must be some money involved in the information.”

Something shipwrecked inside me. In one motion I snatched the cigarette from his confused mouth and stuck it in my own, and as his eyes glazed over in stupidity I hauled back and caught him in the nose and heard a snap. Contorting for a soft place to fall, Richard tottered and I got him again and this time he brought the radio to the carpet with him, switching on a Beethoven sonata, one of the late ones that I especially adore. I pressed him deeper into the floor and I hit him in the back of the head, again, and then again, and he was limp under my weight so I hit him again, so rapidly it sounded like someone was urgently knocking on the door. And I hit him again.

I was breathing hard and he wasn’t breathing at all. Setting him gingerly on the bed I saw that the girl was looking at me. I picked up the radio and brought it down on his head and the radio shut off. The girl wasn’t afraid. She was turned towards me, frowning at Richard’s crumpled head.

“Richard?” she said. Noticing that he wasn’t going to be getting up again, she swept the hair out of her eyes and said, “Are you a producer or something?”

“Sort of, yeah,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Gwenn,” she said.

“Gwenn what?”

“Just Gwenn.”

“I’m sorry you had to be here.”

“I’m sorry wherever I have to be. But I’ve seen worse, so don’t expect me to be shocked.” She got off the bed wrapped in a transparent sheet and slipped on underwear with the sheet still around her. I watched, transfixed by her slim, senseless body. I was thinking of Sue, but not too much. “If you knew how much worse I’ve seen you’d be sorry for believing I feel bad about this.”

“You look good,” I said.

“I have to,” she said.

“How long have you been here?”

“Couple of days. Five, I think.”

“Did you like him?” I asked.

“Who?”

“The man on the floor.”

“He was OK,” she said. There were bruises on her back and some on her arms.

I told her to finish getting dressed and she went into the bathroom with a bundle of clothes. After five minutes of watching him intensely, I was confident that Richard was dead. Also that my fever had returned. I poured another glass of bourbon and swallowed it fast.

The girl reappeared in a light blue dress with white polka-dots, hair pulled back with a clasp, black heels that displayed her hardened calf muscles. Clothed, holding onto a white purse, she had the bearing of a depleted wife. Pretty, but not so pretty as to be annoying. I liked her instantly.

“This was a good meet — cute,” she said.

“I guess,” I said.

“Thanks for what you did,” she said.

I nodded and she nodded back.

It was too soon to feel anything other than an escalating calm that nudged me light-headed to the elevator, the girl clasping my arm. A porter was reading some financial reports inside and he was doing his best not to notice me or the girl and maneuvered the buttons without looking up.

In the lobby I turned to the girl, who was oddly satisfied. “You have a place?” I asked.

“I’ll find one,” she said.

I left her in the lobby.

 

Chapter 35

I didn’t pack anything except for my pistol. Before I left I called my tailor to yell at him. The suit wasn’t ready yet. I went down to the parking garage below my building — the kind of place you have to sneak into to retrieve your car. Some trivial gangland characters in torn leather jackets were exchanging money and handshakes and ignored me.

The antique Buick was dark blue, highlighted with motifs of rust. I sank in behind the wheel and the engine woke fine. I wanted a quiet drive; sadly the radio wouldn’t shut off, and only tuned to a big band station. I blew a layer of dust off the dashboard and put the heap in reverse. Getting to Sutter Falls would take about seven hours. Now it was just hitting on 10:30 a.m. on a plain Thursday.

The morning was chilly and alien. I’d rarely left the city to fend for itself, and I worried about it for a minute. Outside of the city there were hardscrabble houses buried in junk and mounds of wheels and general debris. An hour after I left the rain snapped off and the sky was bluer than I had ever seen it. I was dozing and swerving off the dirt shoulder of the back road, windshield wipers waving extraneously. I stuck my hand out the window and cranked the radio, some over-the-top Benny Goodman stuff. Gearing onto the highway the world abruptly changed from coarse gray to brilliant gray. There were trees and grass and surprises like those. Hills tapered off into valleys and the valleys into mountains.

I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t like the change. Nature had always made me feel the anonymity that the city hides in noise and spectacle.

Sometime before five I was passing the billboard: SUTTER FALLS WELCOMES AMERICA, set in furious yellow print, as though the invitation hadn’t been reciprocated.

The hamlet was clenched in a hushed valley. Distant church steeples pointed at an innocent sky, competed with the exorbitant number of water-towers. Even in advance of reaching town there was a languor you could have sprinkled on cold chowder.

Behind me a green sedan slowed when I did. I couldn’t remember whether it had been there since I deserted the city. I was tired and paranoid, but especially I was tired. Soon, the green sedan wasn’t behind me anymore.

The first establishment I met in Sutter Falls was a low bar with a dirt driveway and one pine tree, called The New Place. On its sign was an oversize moose, its tail mechanically wagging in neon. But the town’s nucleus was a row of storefronts evacuated of any buyers or any marketable charm. There was a pawn shop that doubled, as if on second thought, as a grocer’s, and a barbershop and another barbershop right beside the first barbershop.

No traffic even at that early hour, and the three stoplights in town were all blinking yellow. A family of five was rocking in rocking chairs on a porch stoop, watching me as though I were the World Series. Farther down, a black dog wandered into the street.

The difference between Sutter Falls and a ghost town was a flimsy interpretation.

My motel seemed to be the only one around, wedged in between the bus depot and an ambiguous stone structure that was either what the local masons did for a joke or some site of dubious worship. In comparison, the neon glitter of the motel looked to have been dropped there on a flight to Atlantic City.

The Belgian manager was glaring angrily at a pornographic magazine as if the model was his daughter’s best friend. Long gray hairs sprouted from the unbuttoned parts of his print shirt. Underneath the desk he grappled for a second and I heard the sound of a zipper, standing at the same moment as his pants were pulled up and belted.

“Room?” he asked skeptically. He was broad and appeared to be either slightly dumb or very smart. His graying mustache drooped as though it were wilting. One huge ringed finger employed the hunt-and-peck method on a clipboard clamped with sign-in forms. From the pocket of his tan wool cardigan he produced a cheap ballpoint pen.

“We had a conversation,” I said. “I need the room that William Florence stayed in.”

“I recall explicitly our talk.” He tended to his mustache while he unhooked a key from a little peg. I handed him some twenties.

“Sixteen,” he said, “will be your room. My favorite number. One night?”

“Hopefully.”

From somewhere behind him I could female giggling. He smiled at me deviously.

The staircase was a black crisscross of lines and railings. I wasn’t exactly sure why number 16 would be on the third floor. I heard footsteps above me, but when I halted the footsteps did too.

Room 16 was stuffy and cruelly decorated. A big rectangular reproduction of an 18th century fox hunt hung behind the bed, its lowermost frame hidden by the headboard. Someone had obviously gone through a lot of trouble to scour Sutter Falls for misused furniture and unload it fast. A rickety white card table was unfolded and circled with coffee-cup stains. Out the window there was a clear view of the bus depot and the people waiting there. I snapped the curtains shut. Somebody had left their dark suit in the closet.

Random filaments lined the bedside drawers: a Gideon Bible, unfinished scraps of love letters, a black, balled-up sock, one bottle of antacid tablets and a green, hardened slice of white bread. The telephone and the radio were chained to the lamp and neither worked.

I tried lying in the bed without touching the bed. One of the pillows had the scent of having been used as a hobo’s death shroud. I closed my eyes and suddenly sprang up to see that I had been asleep for less than two minutes.

Around seven I unwound the bandage in the bathroom and soaked it in the sink and wrapped it back on. The mirror was grimed with what appeared to be an erased message written in lipstick. Bergen might have studied himself in the mirror before hefting the certainty of a fully loaded gun.

Pacing the terrible room I leafed through the Bible, that first, monstrous piece of detective fiction. Those dead prophets were all trying to uncover the biggest clue, god, and when he couldn’t be found anywhere they imagined him everywhere for the sake of simplicity. I lifted the painting off the wall and traced the cloudy, badly painted splotch beneath it that was the end of Bergen and his promising golfing career. I stayed in bed for half an hour, listening to the pipes of the motel and the craven whisperings of an emptiness that wrapped tightly around me.

How long had it been since I’d slept?

I needed a drink so bad my hands were going clammy.

Down by the front desk the sounds of heavy intercourse were a zoological event. Walking to the bar I’d driven by earlier I was aware of someone behind me, as though the person were wearing metal-bottomed shoes and was proud to be in them. Every time I doubled back I spotted no one.

The New Place was well abandoned when I got there. At the far end of the bar there was a tall man with a red beard. His fancy cowboy boots were next to his stool. I sat at the bar and after five minutes the barman toweled off the counter in front of me and I ordered a coffee with a little whiskey thrown in.

“Really?” he asked.

I nodded.

Off in a corner a slick-haired dwarf was playing a guitar very low, just brushing the strings like he didn’t want anyone else to overhear, gently tapping his foot to get the rhythm right. After a few moments a couple of tall fellows showed and set up drums and an upright bass and started to fool around with the dwarf’s melody. The small guitarist glared at the men, stuck his guitar in a black case and hopped onto a stool near me and pouted. He started haggling with the barman about the prices and wouldn’t relent until the barman shouted at him to quit pouting. Then the man apologized and left.

Bringing me the concoction, the barman said, “This looks a little harsh. Our coffee is terrible and our hard liquor warps wood.”

“I’m feeling a little harsh tonight.”

“You’re entitled to your feelings.” The barman was a short guy in a sailor’s white coat. When he turned I asked what he knew about Daddy Longtree, and he shrugged helplessly.

“He came in here a while ago often enough.”

“Recently?”

“Yeah. Two or three weeks ago, I guess. From what I heard he wasn’t too social.”

“And what did you hear?”

“That he wasn’t too social.”

“What’d he come in here for?”

“To drink with another guy.”

“When was that?”

“A week or two ago.” He slung the towel over his shoulder. “You seem interested,” he said.

“I’m only pretending.”

“Longtree is a weird one.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He acts funny. He wouldn’t drink his beer when the man he was with bought him one. He wanted hard cider and we don’t sell hard cider so he didn’t drink anything.”

“So what did he do?”

“He didn’t have any hard cider.”

The barman started scrubbing the counter with a blackened cloth. I ate a handful of stale pretzels from a paper bowl.

“Why’re you asking?” he asked.

“I was hoping you’d tell me.”

He mopped the counter some more.

“He just acts funny,” he said. “I know who he is because he used to come in here all the time. Lately he’s just a stranger.”

The bearded man at the end of the bar moaned.

“You know anything about his son?” I asked.

“Ben Longtree?” The barman nodded, solemnly.

“Not much. Poor guy. Finished himself, I guess.”

“How about William Florence?”

The barman contemplated. “William Florence sounds like a name I should know.”

“But you don’t.”

“Yeah, but I don’t.”

I reached in my pocket and clawed out $35 and put it down. He stuffed the money in his pocket. “I’ve still never heard of William Florence,” he said.

“What’d the guy look like that Longtree was meeting?”

“Tallish, dark hair, I think. He wore a watch fob, I remember, and looked queer.”

Refilling my glass, the barman said, “I don’t know what it was about.”

“Could you guess?”

“Why would I guess?”

“Because I need to know.”

“All I can tell you is that Longtree didn’t look pleased.”

The door to the place swung out and Lewishom poked his large head in, saw me and poked his head back out. I drank the rest of my drink and went out. The guy in denim was across the tree-lined intersection on the opposite corner, where a men’s clothing store was unlit except for a man in an upstairs window examining his fingernails. I ran and caught up with the goateed man and grabbed his arm. He didn’t resist.

For about two minutes we stared at each other. The shopfront window was stuffed with mannequins in various postures of abandonment.

“Call me Lewishom,” the man said in a subdued voice. “Because that’s my name.”

“You already told me once. How about I don’t call you anything until you tell me what you’re doing around here?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Lewishom shrugged. The neckline of his blue sweater was frayed, and his gray hair was straight back. Out in the night there was nobody around. The sounds were mostly faraway predatory animals and the creaking of old buildings.

“Sue Longtree?” I asked.

He nodded again, sorrowfully, like he’d just divulged a paltry secret. “Look, Jome. I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to be supposing. Just to follow you and keep tabs and that isn’t a whole lot of much.”

“Why?”

For the third time in less than a minute he bunched up his shoulders and gave me a doleful smile, lapsing into silence. A clock somewhere struck nine and when it stopped clanging I could hear a train rushing through the dark.

Lewishom was looking remotely at the mannequins, pursing his lips and then licking them.

“The wife left me,” he said, “and I’ve been in love with this unattractive burlesque dancer who doesn’t know how much, or at all. I used to go by the club and watch her and act like she was dancing just for me. I thought maybe this gig would cheer me up, but it hasn’t and it won’t and I’ll not get that girl.”

Lewishom spit on the sidewalk and gazed at his saliva. “We’re funny,” he said. He was still shrugging every other second. “I don’t know, Jome. Someone told me that everyone is like a carnival. You ever been to a carnival at two in the morning, when it’s closed? It’s the loneliest place on the earth. But I never really realized what that person meant until I went to a carnival. And even then I still didn’t really get it.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know, Jome. I’m drunk on three-dollar gin so I’m not thinking too well.”

“What are you going to tell me?” I asked.

“About what?”

“About anything.”

He pointed at the window. “Those dummies have it made,” he slobbered, and he turned unsteadily to a Ford parked beside us and got into the passenger seat. I started walking back to the motel, thinking he had nothing for me and was just one of Sue’s extra men. I made the mistake of looking back at the Ford. The dome light was on and Lewishom was bent digging for something in the glove-box. I couldn’t see what it was until he raised it and pointed it at the side of his head. I waited, immobilized and expectant, for 10 minutes. Then I stuck my hands in my pocket and left Lewishom and his scene alone.

It wasn’t until I was fumbling for the room key that I heard the shot ring out. I paused for a second and let myself into my room. And I paused again once I was inside the room and leaned back on the door. I wasn’t acquainted with Lewishom, but now I felt as though I knew his every monologue.

I ran a bath later and just sat in the tub for several hours, my head rolling back into the porcelain tiles every now and then for a second or two of unintended rest.

 

Chapter 36

I was up all night pacing the confines of the room. So far the whole thing was aimless. I’d accomplished nothing in the Longtree case except for driving my client to suicide, regaining my hankering for drink and managing to have been awake for the past couple of days. But I wouldn’t be OK again unless this mess could be proven to have some kind of plot, a moral for what precisely I thought I was doing. Unfortunately, real stories don’t have morals, or plots.

I puttered around the room for a few hours, conjuring any angle that would allow me to get out of Sutter Falls. It was no use. I had to push through with Daddy Longtree and the orchard.

Down in the lobby the next afternoon I had a black coffee in a cracked mug. I pressed the bell, glancing at the yawning ledger that had been opened on the front desk. My signature was second from the bottom, and facing it on the adjacent page was that of W. Florence in tidy, feminine cursive.

The Belgian manager came out of a backroom. Two female voices were berating him with foreign vitriol. A weariness had settled all over the guy and I was a little sad for him. He closed the door quickly, stood facing it pitifully for a moment, and came over.

“Know where I can get some apples?” I asked.

“Is that truthfully what you have called me out here in order for?” He pulled an unkind face. “Did you not hear those women?”

“Who are those women?”

“There’s a grocery store three blocks down on Front Street. I’m sure they will have the apples you are looking for.”

“Isn’t there an orchard somewhere around here?”

“Longtree Orchard,” he said, surreptitiously eyeing the backroom. “But it’s nearly closed. The gift shop belonging to the orchard is straight for a half dozen miles and the orchard itself is a few more, I believe.”

I put my room key on the counter. The Belgian turned and stared at a calendar tacked to the wall. February 9th had been circled and then crossed out severely and repeatedly. He hung the key with the other keys. Reluctantly he went back in with the women and I caught a better look at them: they were overweight, dark-haired twins blotched in too much eyeliner and wearing maid’s gray smocks. They were frowning in tandem, ready to pounce. The Belgian watched me as he shut the door, his eyes pleading for assistance.

I had my own troubles.

Brisk lake air hit me in the eyes. The sun was out and it was an obnoxious glare after so long without a whiff of sunshine. Sweet blossom infused the wind and had the torpor of childhood prowling about it. From the glove-box in my car I found a pair of dark glasses and strapped them on. Across the unlined road there was a restaurant with a dangling, hand-painted sign featuring a tottering farmer. I went in and had pancakes, an egg and three cups of black coffee.

For five miles I drove north under a canopying forest that shut out the sun. According to my watch it was 6:42. The gift shop was on the main road, a rustic, log facade the size of a duplex. One of the triple garage doors was slightly lifted to reveal a gaping interior. Crates were stacked in the yard in disarray, and off to the side in a small pasture was a classic red pickup truck, tailgate rusted off, the tires flat. It was either the epitome of America or its thorough derision. The lake glimmered out of the high birch trees. Paddles muscled through the water, skiffs and speedboats dotting the shores.

But the shop was about as wholesome as lice.

I noticed a set of initials carved in the butt of a log in the front yard, bearing a time and the date, February 9th, below.

The orchard was a sprawling, tangled expanse of neglected trees clutching at brown apples.  A broken fence spanned the grounds, rooted by posts nailed with paper arrows pointing ahead.

The shop’s single, rustic room was decorated in framed awards from a dozen years back and canisters of spent pesticides. Little packets of seeds and wood chips were scattered across the floor. There were decomposed apples everywhere.

A young man with bristles of black hair sat on a stool behind the metal counter. He was wearing gold sunglasses and I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or just lazy. The frazzling white light of a vintage television set flashed around him, but he was not looking at the picture.

“Guess who?” I asked loudly.

He didn’t move and his soft face was inflexible.

“Is your Daddy home?” I asked.

“Daddy’s always home, motherfucker. You know,” he said warmly, “you remind me of someone I wouldn’t like?”

“There’s more of me back in the car.”

“You look tired as hell, pal. Maybe you just need to get some sleep and everything will be fine.” The kid slouched forward and licked the paper of a marijuana cigarette he’d apparently been saving for the occasion.

“So?” I asked.

“What happened to your neck?”

“I’m starting a fashion trend.”

“It looks awfully terrible.”

“They all do in the beginning. Where’s Longtree?”

“He sold the place a week ago. It’s not on the market.”

“I’m not buying.”

“It’s going to become a retreat for wealthy, almost insane people.”

“You’re repeating yourself.” He didn’t get the joke and I wasn’t sure there had been one. “Where is he?”

“At the cottage.”

“Where’s the cottage?”

“Far end of the dirt road.”

“Where’s the dirt road?”

He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“Did you see that dirt road on your way up here?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not that dirt road. It’s another one.”

“Which dirt road is it?”

“The other one.”

He lit the joint with a match and the flame sputtered in the lenses of his shades.

“It’s the dirt road going north. But you’ll have a hell of a time getting up there. We’ll be out of here in a week, so you better get your business done fast.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Why’re you sorry?”

“These days I’m sorry about everything I hear.”

“You must hear a lot.”

“Not nearly enough. I appreciate all the work you’ve put into this,” I said. I handed him a crumpled five dollar bill. “A little something for your trouble.”

“Thanks, but I’m not going to thank you.”

“You’re welcome and you just did.”

“I didn’t mean it,” he said. “Sorry.”

I took a peek at the TV; it was nothing but static.

Back in the car I drove underneath a ratty wooden sign that had been eaten away and over a gradual incline of jutting boulders and hidden dips in the path. Dirt lanes ran the length of the orchard, intersecting, abruptly dead-ending, traversing the hills. All leading seemingly nowhere but upwards. I chose one at random. Liquefying apples popped under my tires, spraying sickening geysers at the windshield. Even with the windows down the vinegary smell of rot was pervasive.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.

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