I’m afraid, and I don’t know why.
I glance around out my windshield. If I’m in any danger at all it’s from this road I’m bouncing along on, a rutted indentation in the leafy forest floor that looks like it was last traveled by covered wagons. At any moment the two-track might fade away like an old rumor and then I’ll just be driving cross-country through the Michigan woods in an Oldsmobile station wagon, plowing into trees and rocks. I’m alone and if I break an axle it will be a long hike back to the highway.
But that’s not what’s bothering me. The vehicle I’m driving was built by General Motors during what must have been a national steel surplus—the front end sticks out like the prow of a battleship. It looks as if it were designed to run into things. I’m not afraid of crashing.
No, this is more basic, more primitive, a chilling call from somewhere in my deep subconscious that startles my pulse rate and causes my eyes to widen involuntarily.
Just as I crest a small rise I ease my foot onto the brake, coming to a groaning halt.
There is absolutely nothing to see but acres of stunning oak and maple trees, lit up by a blazing autumn sun and waving their branches in the gentle breeze as they drop their leaves to the forest floor in an audible rain of color. I am deeply committed to a road to nowhere and can’t reverse course save by driving backward for at least four miles—I doubt my car would forgive me, and I know my neck wouldn’t. But that’s what my instincts are urging me to do: back up. Get out. Escape, an inner voice whispers.
Escape from what?
After a time I overrule my instincts and push ahead, rolling my eyes as if I have a passenger to whom I am apologizing for such squeamishness. It’s a beautiful day, and the property I’m heading out to show is a pretty piece of land on the river—the leaves will be dancing by on the clear water in a colorful flotilla. I was looking forward to it until I came down with a case of the jitters.
At a sharp bend I see something that gives me a start: two men standing beside a pickup truck. They both raise their heads and stare at me as I bounce past, not reacting at all to my attempt at a jaunty wave. I know one of them, it occurs to me, but for some reason I can’t think of the name. From their surprised expressions, I can tell that neither of them is the person I’m meeting—besides, my prospect said he’d bring his wife.
After less than ninety more yards the road ends and I’ve arrived at my destination: the remains of a cabin that burned down nearly ten years ago. Rusted bedsprings and flattened tin cans among the broken glass tell the story of a place that nobody bothered to rebuild after some campers apparently got the bright idea of starting a fire in a chimney full of debris. Now the chimney is all that’s left, crumbling with age but still standing defiant. I wheel my car through the yellow weeds and stop where the front door used to be. When I shut off the engine the resulting quiet makes me want to turn it back on. I’m still that uneasy. Still don’t know why.
I slide out of the car, hesitate, and then walk a few paces to peer at the rusted handle of an old-fashioned icebox lying by itself in the grass. There’s not much else to look at except the river, just ten yards across at this point, so I stroll down to its banks and stare into the dark-green water.
A flash of gold catches my eye. Curious, I reach for it, the current numbingly cold against my wrist.
I’m holding a class ring: Kalkaska High School. It’s probably valuable to someone—I decide to put it in my pocket and drop it off at the principal’s office the next time I am in that small town. The ring has initials stamped into the inside. Someone would probably like to have it back. My resolve to turn it in makes me feel good about myself, a mission with unselfish aim.
I climb back to the flattened, burned-out footprint of the cabin. The couple I’m meeting isn’t here yet: I hope they aren’t intimidated by the sad shape of the road and are back at the turnoff, trying to decide whether to risk their car’s suspension. I don’t want to spend any more time here alone than I have to.
I whirl and gasp, then laugh weakly. The two men by the truck have followed me on foot, and are marching toward me now with oddly serious expressions. Perhaps they believe I am trespassing; I will have to explain my business.
“Hi there,” I call, clearing my throat. “Incredible day, isn’t it?”
They are less than twenty yards away. The one I know—now what is his name?—is average height, midthirties. It strikes me that the reason I can’t remember what to call him is because he looks different; he has a full head of jet-black hair now, whereas the last time I saw him his scalp was covered with only a few wisps. A toupee. I must remember not to stare when I am talking to him, even though it looks as if he’s covered his head with a dead house cat.
The toupee guy’s companion is short and muscular, with green eyes and skin still dark from a summer working out of doors. He looks like a laborer, one of the men I’ve seen engaged in an interminable road project in town, and as if to dress the part he carries a short shovel in his hands.
The one I know exchanges a look with the other as they close the gap between us. Neither of them answers.
And that’s when it hits me: It’s these men I’m afraid of. I fling an arm up just as the laborer swings his spade at me.
I catch the blade of the shovel with my forearm and crash against the side of my car, gasping. The other one is reaching for me but I keep spinning, trying to ignore the pain. I fall to the ground and roll and the shovel misses me, biting dirt instead.
They are both right there but the one with the toupee slips a bit in the mud and that is all I need to leap to my feet and run, my numb arm flailing uselessly at my side. They are right behind me, making their first sounds as they grunt and gasp in pursuit, but then after twenty, thirty yards, they fade away.
I’m in shock, but out of the fog of my confusion it occurs to me that I can run. I’m good at it. I look down and I am wearing runner’s shoes, and even with the fear coursing through me my legs are almost joyously strong, pumping up and down in an even rhythm. I can run faster than they can, faster and longer, and I am going to get away.
As I pound down the road I think about the one with the shovel. No expression, his green eyes watching me, looking at the place on my head where the blade of his weapon would hit. He was trying to kill me. Why did this happen? How could something like this be happening?
I hear their truck and look over my shoulder. Like a fool I have been running on the road, I am still on the road! They are less than thirty yards away, coming very fast. I turn and leap into the woods to my right. A low branch slaps my shins and I stumble and fall, sliding on the wet leaves. It’s okay, I’m okay, and I’m back up. They won’t catch me now. I duck and weave, stumbling over the stumps and fallen trees littering the forest floor.
Then I’m down again, falling hard. My right leg is completely numb, and when I roll and try to leap back up, it won’t cooperate, sliding uselessly beneath me. What? I stare in disbelief at the crimson stain of blood soaking through my pants at the calf. I touch the muscle and it feels shredded; my finger finds a small hole in the cloth.
I’ve been shot.
No fair, no fair, I want to sob. Now that I understand what’s going on I can compensate, and I am hopping forward on my left leg, gritting my teeth. I am moving much more slowly now.
No fair that they have a gun.
Then a mighty blow knocks me forward and I don’t even feel it when my head bounces against the dirt. When I come to a stop I am on my back, looking up at the clear blue sky, orange and red leaves cascading in lazy circles down onto me.
This is the last thing I am ever going to see, I tell myself. Towering over me is a massive oak tree, more than four feet in diameter. A wet, black hole big enough for a man to sit in lies just below the split of the oak’s two mighty limbs. I stare at the tree, memorizing it, wanting to take something with me when I die.
I hear the two men approach, moving slowly. They stand above me, just out of my vision. I am unable to turn my head to look at them, to ask them why they have killed me. The question asked by everyone ever betrayed: How could you do this to me?
“Thought you said no one ever comes out here,” one of them accused. “You know who he is?” “Never seen him before.” Liar.
“I didn’t want to shoot him. Now what?” I get the distinct impression he spits as he poses his question.
“Well, we can’t just leave him. There would be forensics on the bullet. And a murder right now . . .”
There is a sigh. “I suppose we’ll have to bury him right here, then.”
“I think so, yes.”
A gust of wind and the oak creaks, then there is a rattle as hundreds more leaves release their hold and cascade to the ground.
There’s a crunch and a shadow falls over me as one of them leans over for a look.
“Nope. He’s dead.”
No, I’m not, I want to say, though I’m not altogether sure it’s true anymore.
“Guess I’d better get another shovel, then.”
After that I hear only silence, though the light takes a long time to fade away.
A Conversation with Albert Einstein
Computers and insurance companies call me Ruddick McCann—to everyone else I’m just Ruddy. I work for a collateral recovery agency run by a guy named Milton Kramer. When people can’t make their car payments, I help them get back on their feet.
I’m a repo man. Get it? “Back on their feet.” That was repo humor, there.
Milton does some financing—mostly people from our small town of Kalkaska, Michigan, who can’t get credit anywhere else—but usually our business comes from banks and finance companies. We’ll get assignments to repossess folks who can’t pay, won’t give up their vehicles voluntarily, and who usually hang up on collectors who are calling to try to work something out. It makes collectors mad when you hang up on them, so they pay me to go out and express their displeasure in person.
I’ve been relieving people of the burdens of automobile ownership for more than six years and I still don’t understand why it is necessary. If you can’t afford to make your car payments, why not just drive it back to the dealership and hand over the keys, instead of making Ruddy McCann come after you?
Of course, a better question might be, “If you aren’t making any money, why don’t you move someplace where you can find a job?” Most of the time my customers give the impression that having their vehicles repossessed is far from the worst thing to happen that week. When they invite me into their homes to hear their complaints about life, I have to shed my coat—they always keep it hot, their wood stoves pumping out heat and carbon monoxide in equal measure. Their TVs are always on. The local economy has been stuck in a recession since the term was invented. Nine months of the year it’s cold and wet, and then it turns hot and humid. No rational person would stay here longer than the time it takes to pack up his belongings and leave.
I should know. I’ve lived here all my life.
Today I was looking for a twenty-five-year-old man named, of all things, Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein Croft was his full name, though I suspected everyone called him Einstein—how could you resist? He worked on the assembly line at a place called PlasMerc Manufacturing— something told me he wasn’t exactly living up to his parents’ expectations regarding his intelligence. Einstein didn’t feel morally or ethically bound to pay for his used pickup truck anymore and had crudely suggested to the woman from the bank that she go somewhere to have anal sex with herself.
When I met up with Albert Einstein Croft I’d ask him to explain the physics of how that was supposed to work.
The PlasMerc factory had only been open a few years and I’d never been there before. I was surprised, when I located the place, that the employee parking lot was fenced and paved, with a guard in a booth, no less. Most companies in northern Michigan were more considerate, leaving their workers’ cars out in the open where the repo man could easily get to them. I pulled up in Milt’s tow truck and nodded at the guard, hoping he’d figure I was from AAA and punch the button for the gate to swing open. Instead, he gave me a stony stare, so I sighed and rolled down my window.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked in what sounded to my ears like a falsely cheerful voice. I’m not really known for doing “cheerful.”
I had to make a quick decision on how to play it. I decided to shrug and look dumb. “Got a call, guy named Croft, an employee here? I’m supposed to pick up his truck, haul it in.”
He didn’t move to open the gate. “Yeah?”
We looked at one another. The guard was my age, around thirty, and had my build—solid and big. It was obvious we didn’t care much for each other’s attitudes.
“I know who you are,” he said finally.
It was my turn to say “Yeah?” So I did.
“You’re Ruddy McCann. Everybody used to look up to you, and then you let us down.”
“Well, sometimes that’s how these things go.”
“Now you steal cars for a living.”
I had to admit, it sounded less glamorous when he said it.
“You had everything anybody could ever want, and you pissed it away,” he continued. His eyes were cold and pitiless.
I sighed. “So could you let me in?”
“Get out of here. This is private property. You show up here again, I’ll have you arrested.”
We looked at each other for a little bit more. I thought about getting out of the truck and reaching into that booth and pulling him out by his shirt, and he could see me thinking about it and his gaze never faltered—that’s how much he hated me. So I threw the truck in reverse and backed away, my face burning.
There was nothing to do for the next couple of hours except fantasize about punching the guard in the nose. I was sort of driving aimlessly and after a few minutes I was in what passes for a downtown in East Jordan—a tiny, clean little main street with a few shops and no people, as if they were filming a zombie movie.
My idle thoughts eventually drifted around to the nightmare I’d had a couple of nights ago, my sleep disturbed by the violent windstorm that wound up knocking out power all across the county. The memory of it was more like something real, as if it had really happened. I clearly remembered the two men, the guy swinging the shovel, and running down the road, thinking I was going to get away.
No, I’m not.
The dream seemed like it happened in the fall, but right now it was April in northern Michigan, a balmy forty degrees with a light drizzle starting to film my window. I flipped on the wipers and with the first sweep my vision cleared and there she was.
Attractive, midtwenties, curly red-brown hair falling to her shoulders, wearing a bulky all-weather parka and slacks, smiling. And waving. At me.
This was not the sort of thing I expected to happen to me, either in East Jordan or in my lifetime, but despite my disbelief, I stopped. She trotted over to my window, which I hastily rolled down.
“My car won’t start,” she told me. “Could you help me?”
“Why won’t it start?” I asked, as if reading from a book of Stupid Responses for Men.
She shook her head, wiping her wet bangs out of her blue eyes. “I don’t know.”
I swallowed down my disappointment over how I’d been conducting my end of the conversation and finally came up with the right thing to say. “I’ll see if I can jump it.”
I swung the tow truck into the parking space next to her little Ford and in short order determined her battery was dead. She stood in a doorway and blew on her hands while I pulled out my jumper cables. “Your battery looks pretty old and the posts are corroded,” I advised, wanting to talk about anything else but her car. “I can probably get you started, but you’ll want to get a new battery.”
“Oh, great. How much does something like that cost?”
“Maybe fifty, sixty bucks. I don’t know.”
She nodded in resignation. Her car roared to life with one crank, and I disconnected the cables. “I’m so glad you came along,” she told me.
There had to be something witty I could say to that. I stood there, staring at her, trying to think what that might be.
“How much do I owe you?”
She reached into her purse, digging out a wallet. “Oh no, no,” I protested. “No, I’m not a tow-truck driver.”
I could see the skepticism in her eyes: I was, after all, driving a tow truck.
“I mean yes, this is a tow truck, but I’m not from a towing company. It’s ... it’s hard to explain.” Particularly if you want to impress someone and thus don’t want to use the term repo man. Her skin was blemish free, perfect, and her teeth were white and perfect. Probably I would think her elbows were perfect, too.
“So you just drive around looking for what, women in distress?” Her clear eyes sparkled in merriment.
“Wet women,” I affirmed. Then I realized how that might sound and wanted to throw myself on the tow hook. “I mean, from the rain. Not, uh, you know.” Oh, God.
We stood and looked at each other for a minute.
“Well, thanks very much, then.”
“Ruddy. My name is Ruddy McCann.”
“Ruddy. You mean, like the complexion?” Her smile lit up her face.
“It’s short for Ruddick; it was my mother’s maiden name.” I bit my lip, remembering the reaction from the guard. Everybody used to look up to you, and then you let us down. I desperately didn’t want this woman to already know anything about me.
My name didn’t seem to register. “I’m Katie.” Her hand was cold and wet from the weather, but it warmed me when I took it.
She hesitated, perhaps sensing that I wanted to say more, and then gave me another smile. She opened her car door and slid inside. “Well thanks again, Ruddy.”
“Sure. Uh, wait!” My heart was pounding. Katie beamed her beautiful blue eyes up at me and did as I asked: she waited. My brain flailed around, groping for words.
“Uh, I was wondering if maybe I could buy you a cup of coffee?” There.
“That’s sweet, but I need to get back.” Her expression seemed to indicate she really did think it was sweet, so I plunged ahead.
“Maybe some other time? Tomorrow?” Could I sound more desperate?
“Well, I’m dating somebody right now, Ruddy. So, you know ...”
Yes, I knew. Pretty, intelligent women with humor in their blue eyes didn’t wander around in the gray drizzle of East Jordan, Michigan, without a man lurking somewhere in their lives. “Okay,” I told her.
She cocked her head as if to look at me from a different angle. Then she turned and dug into her purse, possibly to hand me a gun so I could put myself out of my misery. “Look.” She wrote her phone number on a piece of paper—I even found her handwriting attractive. “Coffee would be fun. Yes, I’d love to. Here.” She handed me the paper and our fingers brushed against each other. “Call me, okay?”
I spent the rest of the afternoon rewriting my conversation with Katie, talking to myself and being almost excruciatingly witty. I gave Albert Einstein Croft enough time to get home from work, then swung the tow truck up his steep driveway, hoping to find his Chevy pickup out in the open at the top.
It was there, but a severe bend at the top of the drive made it virtually impossible for me to back my tow truck up to his bumper. He’d parked his vehicle with a brick wall at one end and some cement stairs at the other, a tight parallel parking job that must have taken him some time. I couldn’t haul the thing out of there with anything less than a crane. I’d have to appeal to Mr. Croft’s sense of fairness.
I stepped out of my truck and a large white goose peeked at me from a small shed. We looked at each other with baleful expressions.
Einstein came to the door wearing an open plaid shirt and a scowl, holding a beer in his hand. He was lean, but with a soft belly spilling out over his belt. Another five years he’d be thirty and people would describe him as having a “gut.” His hair was black, long, and stringy; eyes dark and cold. He regarded me through his storm door, a “who the hell are you?” expression on his face.
“Mr. Croft? I’m McCann, from Kramer Recovery.”
“So you want to talk through the glass, or do you want to open the door?” I asked, considerably less friendly.
He cracked open the door and a sour odor drifted out on a blast of warm air. Over his shoulder I saw pizza boxes and dirty clothes sharing the same space on the couch. “It’s about the Chevy, Mr. Croft. You’re three payments behind again and the bank sent me out to pick it up. I need you to collect your personal property out of the vehicle.”
Croft looked contemptuous. “I told them I’d pay next Thursday.”
“It’s not up to me. They said you’ve broken promises before. So unless you have those three payments, I need you to surrender the keys.”
“Get off my land.”
I put a fatherly expression on my face: time to roll out my best material. “Look, I know times are probably tough right now. But sometimes all a man’s got in life is his signature on a piece of paper, and I’ve got your signature on a contract saying if you can’t pay, you’ll surrender the vehicle. You have to stand up for your good name, Mr. Croft.”
This little speech had succeeded for me a lot of times in the backwoods of Michigan, where people often really don’t have anything left in life but their honor. Einstein’s expression was derisive.
“Kinda crap is that? You guys knew I paid late when you financed it.”
“It was financed because your dad cosigned for it. You really want us to contact your old man, tell him his son isn’t living up to his word?”
“Hell if I care.”
Milt had told me the cosigner had lost his job and couldn’t pay. I blew out a breath, exasperated. “Come on, Croft, make it easy on yourself. You really want to go around through life parking your car between brick walls so I can’t get at it? Never knowing when you’re going to come out of the bar, finally talked some babe into going home with you, and it’s gone from the parking lot? Let’s get this over with now.”
“You come on my property again, I can shoot you legal,” he responded.
“Actually, that’s not true, it has to be hunting season,” I advised.
He blinked, then twisted his expression into sour disgust and slammed the door in my face. I stood in the rain for a minute, then turned and trudged back to the tow truck. The goose observed me with an unblinking eye.
The truck was sold used, so I didn’t have the original invoice in the file. No invoice, no key numbers to access to cut myself a set of keys to his truck. Normally with used cars I just tow them away, but that wasn’t an option with the way his driveway turned and how he liked to park it. But this truck was built with one of the old-style, steering wheel-column ignitions. What I could do was slim jim the lock on his door and use a dent puller on the key collar, disabling the security lock on his steering wheel and ripping out the starter contacts before Einstein could recite the theory of relativity. Once I started the truck, though, I’d have to rock back and forth a few times before I got a good enough angle to back the thing down the driveway. He’d obviously gone through the same rocking process to park it there. If he really did have a gun in his house, I’d be a pretty easy target.
I’d have to come back later.
Midnight. I did my best work at midnight.
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Money for Nothing
The drizzle became more ambitious on the one-hour drive back to Kalkaska, making a ticking sound that meant it was changing from rain to sleet. I thought for a while about Einstein Croft’s truck, then about beautiful curly-and-brown-haired Katie, her phone number safe in my pocket, and then finally about the nightmare again.
By the time I dropped Milt’s tow truck off at the lot, the ice was coming out of the sky like bird shot, stinging my face as I hustled down to the Black Bear Bar. I pushed the door open and wiped the wet off my coat.
The bar was just starting to gather its Friday night together, some guys from the insurance agency turning their liquid lunch into an early evening and a couple of construction workers messing around at the pool table. I could tell from the pristine set of the booths that we hadn’t sold any food all day.
My sister Becky and I disagree about the kitchen she tries to run out of what had been nothing more than a place for booze back when my parents owned it, but in the end the business belonged to her and she tacked up a bar and grille sign over the door a few months ago, as if the extra e was going to convince anyone to actually eat there.
Becky was hunched over her ledger book, chewing on the end of her pencil. “Becky, hey,” I called, sliding around the bar and pulling down a glass of beer. The spigot sputtered and spat foam. “Great,” I muttered.
“Be sure to clean the hose this time,” Becky reminded me absently.
“This time,” I shot back. More than two years had passed since I’d neglected to clean the rubber hoses that ran the beer from the keg to the tap, with the result that we served a bunch of college students a few brews with some moldy-looking crap floating on the surface. Apparently I was never to be forgiven.
Grunting loudly, I wrestled a new keg out of the back, then pointedly set about running soap and water down the hoses. “You won’t believe this dream I had.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied, so fascinated she couldn’t bring herself to look at me.
“The night of the big storm, knocked out the power?”
“That was some storm. Windy,” she answered absently.
“It was incredibly real. I’ve never had a dream like this. I was driving in the woods and these two guys hit me with a shovel.”
She glanced up. “Who?”
Becky is two years younger than I, but I can’t help but think of her as my older sister. While I was raising hell with my football buddies in high school she was always serious, like right now with her glasses smudged and her brown hair lifeless and stringy after working the bar all afternoon. It was as if she had a tapeworm or something that was always draining the fun out of her, turning her dour and sad.
It started with her teeth. Some sort of medication my mother took when she was pregnant caused Becky’s baby teeth to come in a dark gray, almost black. I’ll never forget waiting for those teeth to fall out, and the slump in my parents’ shoulders when the adult teeth finally sprouted and they were as dingy as the first set. She was the girl with the gray smile. Becky spent her whole childhood trying not to grin, and it seemed to make her mouth small, somehow, pulling her face down into a point. Bleaching at the dentist’s office eventually became affordable and effective enough that she now had a real smile, but she doesn’t deploy it very often.
“I don’t know who. Two guys. They hit me with a shovel, then they shot me.”
“Shot you,” she echoed listlessly.
I found myself somehow hurt she didn’t care more. Wasn’t she listening? I was shot. “Yes, shot! And then I died in the dream. That’s never happened to me. I mean, I could just feel myself die. Last thing I remember was lying there looking at this big old tree, and then I just slipped away.”
“And came here.” She gestured around the Black Bear Bar and Grille. “Heaven.”
“It’s bad luck to die in a dream,” I persisted. “It supposedly means you’re going to die in real life.”
“Supposedly, you are going to die in real life.”
“What’s eating you, anyway?”
She tapped her glasses with her eraser, regarding me with her sad eyes. “We’re pretty far behind on our food bill. When I called in the order this morning they wanted to know when we’ll be sending them some money.”
“Oh, that again.”
“Yes, that again.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to Milt tomorrow, see if he has something for me.” I shrugged.
“We need a thousand dollars by the end of the month.” I figured I knew why the accusatory tone: Against her wishes I’d extended some credit to a few people who’d been oddly absent from the bar since the night of my generosity. “If we don’t have it, we’ll be cut off again, have to pay cash for everything. We could go out of business.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to Milt,” I reiterated. “Man, that was a weird dream.”
“Ruddy, you’re not listening to me. A thousand dollars or we could lose the bar.”
I weighed the chances of pulling in four repos in a week. It made stealing Albert Einstein’s truck a higher priority. “I’ll think of something, okay?”
I turned away from the distress in her eyes. What could I say? This time of year was always bad for the Black Bear, all of the cash reserves sapped by the winter’s lack of business. Becky bent her head back down, tapping her pencil. I wanted to comfort her, but Becky doesn’t really do comfort. The Black Bear had been in existence our whole lives; I really couldn’t imagine it closing, despite her dire pronouncement.
I went back to cleaning up, thinking there was something else about the nightmare I needed to tell Becky. Something important, but now I couldn’t remember.
Slow night. An hour later the insurance salesmen were gone, dropping a pile of crumpled bills on the center of the table that covered the tab but left virtually nothing extra to acknowledge that Becky had been running back and forth to the bar on their behalf for four hours. I slipped the money into the till without telling her. The construction workers had added a third person to their party, which I supposed made it a crowd, but they made one pitcher of Coors last for two hours, as if having clean hoses made it taste funny. To please Becky I tried suggesting they might like some nachos and they acted as if I were joking.
I couldn’t blame them; our nachos tasted like roofing material.
Claude and Wilma Wolfinger made a boisterous appearance at around eight o’clock, looking as if they had already invested a considerable amount at one of Becky’s competitors. They were both sixty years old and it seemed like they had been married for at least that long.
Claude waved at me expansively. “Ruddy, come here a minute,” he greeted.
Claude was a thin man with white hair growing from his wiry, spotted arms. His cheekbones were nearly always red from the harsh weather and the strong drink he used to ward off the cold. His shirt proudly stated that he was a mechanic at a used car dealership, and his hands were never quite clean. When I was a little boy he and Wilma would sit in the Black Bear and regale me with stories of the world travels they were about to undertake. Twenty years later and he was still here in Kalkaska, overhauling truck engines.
Wilma worked for the county, patiently telling people they were in the wrong line or that they had filled out the wrong form. She was an inch taller than Claude’s five foot eight and outweighed him by fifty pounds. She wore violently bright colors and huge sparkly earrings that resembled miniature chandeliers. Some of Wilma’s ancestors were here when the white man came and apparently liked the new arrivals enough to marry them—all that remained of her Native American heritage was her black hair and dark eyes, but it was enough to give her a bit of an exotic look, particularly when she was angry at Claude, which frequently happened at the Black Bear. They always paid for whatever dishes they threw at each other.
“Ruddy, Ruddy, come sit down,” Claude urged, clamping a hand on my wrist. Wilma was smiling at me joyfully, positively beaming. That they were this happy together was so unnatural it made me instantly suspicious.
“Ruddy, I’ve got a plan that is going to make us all rich.”
“I haven’t got any investment capital, Claude.”
“No! Listen.” He winked at Wilma and she nodded encouragingly. “You can say good-bye to your finances with this one, Ruddy.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”
“What?” Claude asked, puzzled.
“He means your finance problems, Ruddy,” Wilma corrected. “This is going to fix everything.”
Claude was looking over my shoulder, his face drawing tight. “This deal’s just for us,” he said hurriedly, “so don’t say anything to Jimmy about it. Act natural!”
I turned. Jimmy Growe was making his way across the floor to my table, his face scrunched in concern. “Hey, Claude. Hi, Wilma. Ruddy,” he greeted us.
“Hi, Jimmy,” Wilma responded softy, while Claude and I acted natural. Wilma was reacting to Jimmy because she couldn’t help herself; he has a clean, innocent face that seems to make women want to mother and love him from the moment they see him. He was what I think they call “black Irish”: green eyes, smooth skin, jet-black hair—he looked like a movie star and had even been in a TV commercial once, though his career as an actor was somewhat hampered by his inability to act.
“Ruddy, you got a minute?”
Claude’s hand grabbed my wrist again in a firm message I ignored. “Sure, Jimmy, everything okay?”
He eyed Claude and Wilma. “Uh, I need to talk to you. It’s kinda important.”
I struggled to my feet, Claude clinging to me like a wrestler. “Okay, sure, let’s go over by the bear.” I gave Claude a look and he reluctantly released me.
“See you in a minute, then, Ruddy,” he told me, with so much emphasis I half expected him to pull out a stopwatch.
Jimmy and I wandered across the bar to the bear. When I was nine years old my father and my uncle shot one of the last black bears seen in Kalkaska County, a fact that gave him no end of pride back then and which now occasionally came up as a barbed reference by the environmentally minded editors of the local paper. The carcass was taken to a taxidermist, who stuffed it full of, well, stuffing, and posed the animal in a position of fierce anger, its teeth bared and its arms lifted for a totally unbearlike attack. My dad nicknamed the bear Bob. Not too many people wanted to sit under it and get drunk, so Jimmy and I were alone. We pulled our chairs up to a small table and sat, Jimmy hunched over in a position of such distress that I was sure he’d gotten a girl pregnant. I crossed my arms and waited for him to find his way to the right words.
“Where the hell am I?” the bear asked.
I whipped my head around. I’d heard it in my right ear as clear as if the bear had leaned over and spoken, but there was no one there. “What?”
Jimmy frowned. “Huh?”
“I ... ” I pointed to the bear. “Did you hear that? It sounded like the bear talked.”
Jimmy was clearly baffled. “The bear?”
I cranked my head around all the way, surveying the whole bar. We were completely alone, ignored except for the frantic looks from Claude. Yet the voice had been right there, closer to me than even the bear, really. “It said, ‘Where the hell am I?’ Did you hear it?”
Jimmy gazed at the bear with a perplexed expression.
“Okay, never mind.” It didn’t make sense so it must not have happened. “Tell me what’s up.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay. Yeah.” Jimmy hunched over again, poking at a cigarette burn in the wooden surface of the table.
“Jimmy . . .” I prompted after a minute.
“It’s like this. You know Milton Kramer, right?”
This was going to take awhile. I sighed. “Yes, I know my boss. Are you behind on some payments, Jimmy?”
“Oh no, nothing like that, Ruddy. It’s these checks.”
“Checks? From the hotel?” Jimmy might look like a fashion model but he lacked a certain focus and thus far had managed only to secure full-time employment as a low-level maintenance man at the local hotel.
“Well no, huh-uh. These are checks I got in the mail.”
“In the mail?”
The door opened and two young women came inside, blinking at the bear in a way that let me know they’d never been here before. Then they fastened their gaze on Jimmy. I nodded at them encouragingly, but apparently I was invisible.
Jimmy glanced at me with hooded eyes. “Uh-huh, yeah. In the mail. For a thousand dollars.”
“Who sent you a check for a thousand dollars?”
Jimmy shrugged. “I dunno.”
“You don’t know.”
“So someone sent you a check for a thousand dollars and you don’t know who.”
“Yeah. Five of them.”
“Five of them? Five thousand dollars?” I stared incredulously.
I sat and regarded him with the same lack of comprehension he was showing me. “So you have five checks for a thousand dollars. Made out to you?”
“Made out to you,” I proclaimed. “Jimmy, I wish I had a problem like this. Are you sure you don’t know who sent them?”
“Don’t know,” he muttered.
“So what’s bothering you, Jimmy?” I prompted. At the bar the two young women were talking to Becky, who chatted with them and then glanced at me in a way that instantly communicated what was happening: The girls were buying Jimmy, but not me, a beer. I shrugged at my sister, indicating I thought they were too young for me anyway. Her eyebrows lifted in skepticism.
“Well ... you know Milton Kramer?” Jimmy asked.
For heaven’s sake. “Jimmy, would you please get to the point? Claude and Wilma want to make me an instant millionaire and there are two girls at the bar who want you to sleep between them tonight.”
Becky came over with Jimmy’s drink and a sympathy beer for me. “Maybe the one who doesn’t get Jimmy will settle,” she teased. I scowled at her and she almost smiled for what would have been the first time in weeks. Jimmy and I raised our beers in thanks to the two girls, who appeared delighted with Jimmy and alarmed that I had somehow become part of the process. When Becky returned they enjoined her in emergency consultation.
“Milton Kramer,” I suggested, making it sound like a toast.
Jimmy nodded unhappily. “Well, it’s like this. I cashed the checks with Milton.”
“All five thousand?”
“Yeah. Ten points.”
“He charged you five hundred dollars.”
“Right. I don’t got a checking account anymore because of the mix-up with the bank,” Jimmy explained.
“That mix-up where you wrote checks with no money in the account to cover them.”
“Yeah. Goddamn banks,” Jimmy stated without heat. Jimmy doesn’t really get mad at people, but in his mind there was something unfair about a system that required you to keep track of your checking account when the bank had all the money anyway. It had been up to me to arrange a way for Jimmy to pay off his debts a little at a time.
Jimmy is three years younger than I and had always been something of a little brother. I’d been protecting him from the world for as long as I could remember. He and Becky were the two people I cared most about in this life.
I sighed again. “Let me guess what happened with the checks.”
“That was going to be my guess.” “So now ... ” Jimmy spread his hands.
“So now Milton wants his money back. Which you probably don’t have anymore.” Jimmy stared at his beer.
“Somebody sent you checks and you had no idea why, so you cashed them, Jimmy? Didn’t you wonder what the hell was going on?”
Jimmy shrugged. “Well, there was no name on the checks. They were the starter kind,” he said, as if that explained it.
“So I was wondering, could you like, talk to Milton and get him to see reason here?”
“See reason? Jimmy, he’s out five thousand dollars.”
“Well yeah, but I didn’t know they were going to bounce. I mean, it’s not my fault or anything.” I let that statement lie there for a while.
“See, I was thinking you could maybe talk to Milton, and then you could, like, find out who was sending the checks and get the money back.”
“Get the money back.”
“Yeah, and like, I’d let you have this. Endorse it over, you know.” Jimmy reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, which of course turned out to be a check made out to James Growe in the amount of one thousand dollars. I stared at Jimmy’s clear green eyes and saw no indication of anything approaching irony. I turned to the bear. “Never mind you, where the hell am I?” I demanded.
“What?” Jimmy asked, baffled at my behavior.
“Look, Jimmy. I’ll check into this. And I’ll talk to Milton. But you’re going to have to pay him back the five thousand, you know that, don’t you? What did you buy?”
“Uh, a bike. And I gave some money to some friends.”
“Can they pay you back?”
“Well, you know.”
I sighed. Yes, I did know. “Okay, well first, you’ll have to sell the bike.” Jimmy looked unhappy. “Sell it and give the money to Milt. I’ll work out a payment plan for the rest. And Jimmy, if you get any more checks, don’t cash them, all right? Understand?”
Jimmy nodded with relief that I was going to help him, but I could see he was lying. He didn’t understand, not really.
I suddenly became aware of something in my pocket and pulled it out. “Katie,” it said, along with a phone number. For a moment I thought of asking Jimmy what it meant when a woman told you she had a boyfriend and then handed you her phone number. Jimmy’s had more experience with ladies than anybody I know. But then I thought better of it—what if Jimmy said it didn’t mean anything special? I wasn’t ready for that kind of news.
When I stood the two girls at the bar went on high alert, preparing to swoop as soon as I stopped polluting the situation.
Claude looked ready to have a heart attack. “Where the hell have you been?” he grated, despite the fact that I had not been out of his sight for a single second. “I told you this was important!”
“I went backpacking across Europe,” I told him, sitting back down. “What’s up, Claude?”
Wilma leaned forward. “Claude and I are going to be set for life,” she announced triumphantly.
“Wilma!” Claude barked, irritated with her.
“Tell him, honey,” she urged.
“It’s my idea, and then you go and spoil it,” he pouted.
“I didn’t spoil it!” she snapped, her voice rising. Becky raised her head up in alarm, worried the Wolfingers were getting ready to start throwing things. I waved a hand at her.
“Claude,” I said sternly. “Wilma didn’t say anything. You want to tell me your plan? Because I could really use some money right about now.”
“Yeah, okay. Well, like I was saying,” he started, giving Wilma a fierce look, “you ever heard of a little thing called the Witness Protection Program? Where they set you up in business, give you a new name and a house and everything?”
“I’m going to have a pet shop,” Wilma proclaimed.
“Wilma! Would you let me tell it?”
“We’re moving to Florida!” she added happily.
“We’re not going anywhere if you don’t learn to keep your trap shut!” Claude thundered.
“Hey!” I shouted. They turned to me, blinking as if just noticing I was there. “You mind telling me what this is all about?”
“Well, remember when I saw that guy smashing the headlights on the front row of cars at the dealership?” Claude asked.
“They caught the guy,” Claude announced delightedly.
I looked at the two of them beaming at me. “And?” I prompted.
“I’m a witness!” They clinked glasses in congratulations.
“What a couple of idiots,” I heard the bear say. I froze, then turned my head slowly, looking for what had sounded like someone bent over and speaking directly into my ear. Jimmy had joined the two girls at the bar, and the bear was still immobile in attack, lips not moving, all the way across the room. There was no one else within ten feet of me.
“Witness Protection Program,” I repeated, just to hear my own voice. I sounded like myself—the bear’s voice, while male, was pitched higher.
“I’m going to tell them to make me a pharmacist,” Claude avowed.
I pulled myself back into the conversation and gazed at the glowing couple. “Sounds like a great plan,” I told them with as much sincerity as I could muster. “Tell me again why this is such good news for me?”
“We’re going to ask that you be our personal bodyguard, Ruddy,” Wilma informed me. “Just until we leave Kalkaska, but still.”
“You know how much money those guys make?” Claude wanted to know.
I opened my mouth to answer when a motion caught my eye. I turned and watched in amazement as Jimmy Growe, his arms waving, flew backward across the room, falling to the floor with a crash.
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