3 • Coffee, GPS, and a Find
Will stopped at the kitchen entrance, hands on his hips, and stared. Newspapers stood stacked on one counter from the gold-flecked Formica top to the overhead cabinet. On the other, a half dozen boxes of heavy duty trash bags, a Hamilton Beach Blend-Pro still in the box, empty Kool Whip containers with a random assortment of screws and wing nuts and a tangle of wire. The rest of the space and the double sink were filled with leaning piles of plates, cups, and saucepans, coated with a rough black film making it impossible to guess the last meal eaten from any of them.
He opened a cupboard. Empty. He opened another. Two flowered melamine plates and an empty sugar jar. He opened a third and found seven cans of chicken and rice soup with red and white labels, lined in a row. Will picked one up and turned it over. “Sell by Aug 2006.” He put it back and closed the door. He wouldn’t open the refrigerator.
Will walked instead back through the dining room and saw Joe in his shabby chair, hands folded across his belly, leaning his head back with a peaceful smile.
“I’ll be right back, ” he said, and stepped out the front door.
Eight years ago, Will traded his white Toyota truck for his blue Ford F350 pickup. He’d been partial to the old Toyota, but out here a guy was frowned upon for driving an import. He’d had too many grinning farmers tip back their feed store caps and twirl toothpicks with their tongues threatening to send the dogs after him if he drove that un-patriotic piece of shit onto their property. He decided it was bad for business. Maybe even bad for his health.
Oh, those guys looked genial enough in their brown Carhartt coveralls and flannel shirts while they meandered out to show Will the grain bin where that wind last July tore the metal clean off. But he’d seen enough of those same mild mannered fellas take pokes at each other after a couple of drinks at Marvelle’s Bar downtown because one of them drove a red tractor instead of the most high and holy green. He decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and let the old girl go.
He wasn’t fond of Ford anymore than Chevy or Dodge, a distinction these farmers made nearly as strongly as between John Deere and International. But Will liked that the trucks were numbered, not named. It was simple, orderly. And made sense. An F350 is bigger than an F150. Nothing like misappropriated names of places or cultures like a Tahoe or Dakota. The names didn’t mean anything about a truck, but marketers with whopping Superbowl ad budgets pretended they did.
Will kept his truck equipped like his office. Even like a small house on the road. Once he left the office, he never knew when he’d get back. He had his computer and a portable printer/scanner so he could upload from the field if he had to. He carried audio and video recording equipment in case he had to conduct an interview or stage impromptu surveillance. He always tossed a gym bag with a change of clothes in the back, and carried his old red and white cooler full of sandwiches, chips and Twinkies.
He reached into the cooler and grabbed a bag of chocolate chip cookies his landlady had given him the day before, then reached for his thermos on the passenger seat. He shook it.
“Hmm. Might be two cups left.”
Back inside, he found Joe just as he left him, still lost in Rebroff’s faded echo. Will pulled a wooden chair from the dining room table and swatted it a couple of times with his gloves to clear the seat. He carried it to the living room and set it next to Joe’s chair, then set the cookies and thermos on the side table and found a package of Styrofoam cups he’d seen earlier.
“Hope you like your coffee dark, Joe, ” he held out a cup. “I brew it a little stiffer than the girls down at the café.”
The old man opened his eyes. Something crossed Joe’s face. Will wasn’t sure what, and wondered if the color of the old man’s eyes had shifted just a little, from the green that twinkled over Rebroff to something more like the gray dust of the room. Joe glanced at the floor, and then popped up his head and took the cup with a playful grin.
“I don’t suppose you brought along any cream?” He winked, and put the cup to his lips.
Will took the long way home. The day was already shot anyway. And after an afternoon of entertainment by the old man and his musical stylings, Will was shot too. He wouldn’t go back to the office. He could file Joe’s report early enough in the morning.
The GPS on his dash erupted in digitized vocal panic when Will drove past the on-ramp for the interstate highway and straight line home. Taking the old highway would add 45 minutes to the drive, meandering through every tiny town in the valley.
“Make a u-turn!” the little box harped.
“No, ” Will said softly, looking out the side window toward the purplish Coteau hills lining the horizon.
“Make a u-turn!” It seemed more emphatic this time.
“Make your own damn u-turn, Barbara.” He yanked the cord from the socket and flung it against the passenger seat. “I’m taking the scenic route.”
Will couldn’t go anywhere without the GPS. He didn’t even know his left from right without thinking of which hand he put on his heart. Back in junior high Home Ec class he had to write the letters L and R on the back of his hands to make sure he didn’t serve from the wrong side of the table. Old Mrs. Waverle would make him stay after for reaching in from the right. Figuring directions that didn’t correspond to a side of his body was impossible. He couldn’t choose east from west without a compass.
He and the directional gadget spent so much time together on the road he named her Barbara. He needed her, but their relationship was full of rancor. She was always telling him what to do, and he was always not doing it.
“You’re just here for backup, ” he would say to her. “The farmer gave me good directions this time.” He knew, though, that there wasn’t a farmer in six counties who could give directions a city boy could follow. Barbara had saved him more than once on an old dirt road late at night. He’d taken to always asking the farmer for a landmark to tell him he’d gone too far. Even so, he was always driving past the old school house or fireworks stand or electrical substation anyway, or when a guy told him to go south “another four or five miles after that big curve by the stock pond, ” always going ten miles or so, never quite sure which curve was the big one.
He drove past the green highway sign announcing that he was entering Erin Springs, pop. 99. He’d worked in this town a few months ago. A customer had cleaned out his truck one Sunday afternoon and left the doors open to air out. He came back out after dark and shut the doors for the night. In the morning, turned out, he’d trapped a raccoon in the cab. Turns out a raccoon can do an awful lot of damage to a pickup cab overnight.
The man had called him when he was a couple of miles from town, saying he’d meet him because the best roads to the his place were washed out from the heavy rains.
“Sounds great, ” Will said. “Where should I meet you?”
“Oh, don’t you worry, ” the farmer said. “I’ll see you when you come to town.”
Will had turned left between the Prairie Dog Supply store and the grain elevator, the only road into town. Main Street looked to be about two blocks. He saw a half dozen pickups but none with drivers. A couple of guys in faded coveralls and feed store caps leaned on the rail outside the Old Timers Café. He drove slowly along the street, feeling like there may have been a sniper on the water tower with binoculars. He finally pulled up in front of the Farmers and Merchants Bank and parked. As he took his phone out of the holster and pulled up his contacts, he felt a shadow crawl up on his left side. He turned and saw a man outside his window, grinning ear to ear under his camouflage Ranger cap. Jimmy was friendly enough, but Will couldn’t shake the creepy feeling of having driven into a Twilight Zone episode, 99 sets of eyes peering on him that he couldn’t see.
He shook it off now and kept driving. Soon, Vendry Tower stood out his side window. He’d always wanted to climb it one day but never seemed to have the time when he came by. He’d heard a guy could see three states from the top.
Will parked in the gravel lot, unplugged his phone from the charger and slipped it into the holster. He locked his car and dropped the keys in his pocket, a habit he kept even here where there wasn’t another living soul for 20 miles. He skipped over the murals on the wall and readings in the interpretive center, as he didn’t care much for interpretive nonsense, just wanted to get on with whatever he was doing, not listen to someone else’s explanation of a thing. Passing through the commons, he went on to climb the stairs.
Three flights in, he was breathing hard and his legs felt like jelly. “Come on, you old man. You can do this, ” he fought an urge to turn back and stood by the rail, looking out at the prairie sprawling. “Nope, you’re going all the way up so I don’t have trees in my view.” Will wished for a cigarette and a drink and felt older than he thought a 50-year-old ought to. Taking a long break after flights four and five, he told himself the view would be spectacular. Something in him kept pushing, though he was wheezing now, struggling to lift a foot as high as the next step.
He made it to the sixth level and slumped to the ground, his back to the rail and his butt on the rough wood. It felt cool through his jeans. He hung his hands over his bent knees and rasped out short hard breaths, feeling as though his chest might break open and his heart spring out like a jack-in-the-box.
Will needed to cut back on the cigarettes. Barbara had told him that. The real Barbara, not the black box that perched on his dashboard. He only smoked a pack a day when she told him to cut back. At her prompting to smoke less, he upped his consumption to two packs a day.
It was easy to spite Barbara. He only had to see her shiny blonde hair, soft curls falling onto her shoulder or look into her deep sea blue eyes. Just get a glimpse of her tight little ass or shapely legs under a short black skirt and he’d do exactly the opposite of what she asked in her never-stopping, sing-songing voice reciting the list of all the things she might like him to do for her.
When he started tearing the cellophane off a third pack every day, he knew Barbara was slowly killing him.
Will’s phone buzzed softly against his hip. He ignored it. Sometimes he felt the vibration in his joint even when his phone was sitting on his dresser.
It buzzed again. He pulled it up and propped it against his thigh, squinting against the setting sun to read the screen.
Mad Dog. Of course.
“You coming back in tonight? I have a new house fire in Fergus. I know it’s late, but I could use a hand if you have one.”
Adjusting was a solo operation. That’s the way God made it, Will used to say. Long hours alone on the road, picking fights with talk radio hosts or joking with cows that made their way past the electric fence, just to get somewhere and spend 30 minutes and a few megabytes of memory card storage. Sure, there might be small talk with the widow watching The Price Is Right, or a good laugh with the farmer who figures the best negotiating position he can have is grinning behind the controls of his front-end loader while he had a guy 10 feet in the air in the bucket. But to Will’s mind, adjusters worked in closely guarded solitude, behind walls erected by silence. Anything a guy would say on a job would surely be twisted into a hangman’s noose to use against him. One couldn’t risk getting emotionally involved and God forbid a policyholder mistook an adjuster for a friend, only to be deeply betrayed when he had to point a nail-bitten finger to the finer points of a policy contract.
On this, he and Mad Dog were agreed. One’s best work was done alone and a claims guy had to be able to face an angry farm wife and her drooling Dobermans on his own. But they were also agreed that from time to time there was a certain usefulness to having a partner. On a large fire, they could sweep through a house in half the time, one jawing with an anxious homeowner and holding her at bay while the other made his way through the wreckage without Chatty Cathy at his elbow.
Will didn’t know how he’d even make it back down the tower steps, and hated the idea of working all night, but he figured he owed Mad Dog a favor or two. He typed back: “No sweat. I’m a half hour out from town. Pack your gear; I’ll pick you up.”
He hit send and let the phone drop to his lap. He took it back and tapped, “Oh, and can you make me a sandwich?”
One foot already in the cab, he was about to pull himself up into the seat when he saw the Barbie doll head below his door, on the gravel next to his front tire. He slowed up and cocked his head, staring at hers. Will stepped back down, leaned and picked it up by the matted blond hair. He dangled the head in front of his face and murmured, “What the hell happened to you, little girl?”
For Will, everyone and everything had a back story, the things no one knew, no one saw, sometimes no one would even guess. He thought about Mrs. Owens. A nice lady by all reports. Never said a cross word to anyone, had no real problems, was in perfect health. One day, she’s driving down the highway at 65 mph and her heart stops. Her car careens off the road, through the ditch, across a parking lot and rams into the cinder block wall of an out-of-the-way hunting lodge that was just getting ready for the lunch rush. The impact knocked a wall off center and jammed up a video poker machine inside. Mrs. Owens was pronounced dead at the scene.
Will had flipped through the pages of the autopsy, something he hated to do. It always felt like peering in at someone who can’t tell you they don’t prefer to be peered at. He didn’t wish to know that her body was opened in the usual manner and found to be without abnormality. He didn’t wish to know that she had four dollar bills and twenty-six cents in change in her purse along with a tube of lipstick (Pink Possibilities shade), a grocery list (she was out of milk) and pictures of her grandkids (she had seven — four girls and three boys). He concluded that there was likely no known preexisting condition that gave rise to the heart attack and was satisfied it couldn’t be determined if the cause of death were cardiac arrest or blunt force trauma, though the coroner seemed comfortable enough saying it was the blunt force trauma. Either way, Mrs. Owens was dead and a guy wanted his building paid for. What Will couldn’t shake was her shoe. She arrived at the morgue in a long-sleeved t-shirt, blue jeans and one black shoe. What on earth had happened to her other shoe?
It was most likely hidden in the grass, knocked off during the crash or when she was extricated from the LeSabre, front end crumpled into the back seat. One day, he supposed, someone on a road cleanup crew would find the shoe and drop it in to a black Hefty trash bag without another thought to Mrs. Owens, her story long since forgotten. That one shoe would take its storied memory with it to the bottom of the landfill to decompose alongside Eggo Waffle packages and Fischer Price high chairs.
“Look, Doll, ” Will said, picking a pebble out of her hair. “Heads don’t just go missing in parking lots. Especially with such a clean neck cut. Your story is safe with me.” He climbed into the truck and dropped the head into the glove box, then started the engine and pulled back onto the highway.
(to be continued)