Something Feels Wrong
In the shocked silence following Jimmy’s fall I tracked his trajectory back to its source: a nasty-looking guy I hadn’t noticed coming in, with long, black hair and a goatee clinging to a threadlike existence on his chin. He was one of those guys for whom black jeans and a black T-shirt can only be accessorized with black boots and a black belt, both sporting pointed silver studs that had mostly fallen out like rotten teeth.
Sitting on one side of the two girls was a beefier version of the same guy, also in black but his T-shirt had words printed on it, so he was probably the brains of the outfit. It didn’t take much imagination to picture the scene that must have ensued just prior to Jimmy’s backward tumble. Two greasy guys try to move in on the girls, ignoring Jimmy because he was about as intimidating as a Calvin Klein underwear model. Jimmy attempts to make the bad boys back off, and one of them changes the nature of the exchange with a quick punch.
“Hey,” I observed, using my best bouncer voice. I stepped over Jimmy’s prostrate form and he stared up at me blankly, not yet capable of processing thought.
“That’s enough of that.”
The guy with the goatee sized me up. I was considerably larger than he, but he looked anything but intimidated: Delighted, would be the best description. “Who’re you?” he challenged, his voice quavering with something I swear sounded like joy.
“I’m the guy who’s telling you to leave,” I answered quietly, stepping into his space. I was aware of Jimmy’s playmates standing just behind him, their eyes wide as they regarded this exchange, and sucked in my stomach a little.
The guy with the goatee didn’t back away, even though he had to tilt his head to look at me. He still had an odd smile playing across his lips, as if he had a secret he was dying to share with me.
A change settled over the both of us, a realization. With twin motions we glanced over our respective shoulders—my opponent at his buddy still sitting with the girls, and me at Becky, a slight head shake telling her to take her hand off the telephone.
“So you think—” I started to say, but with a fast motion he struck me in the ribs hard enough to erase the rest of my sentence. The sparse crowd, most of them my friends, gasped a little.
I rubbed my side and stopped talking, watching my opponent dance back on his feet. I stepped forward, following, bringing my arms up. I jabbed hard and hit the air where his head had been an instant before, which put me in a bad mood. He slid sideways, feinted with his open hands, and then slugged me with something. No, I realized as I staggered away from the blow, he kicked me. In the head, the guy actually kicked me in the head!
I fell as hard as big guys are supposed to, the whole room echoing with the impact. Little points of light danced in a conga line across my vision, and the back of my skull joined the chorus of pain as I struck the floor. For a moment, the room seemed to grow dark, and as I lay there I imagined I was looking up at a hole in a large oak tree.
No, I’m not.
When I thought about it, I rolled away from his feet, but he wasn’t a stomper; it was too much fun to knock me down. So that was the secret he’d been so eager to share with me; he was some sort of martial arts guy.
I reconstructed my stance a segment at a time, unhinging legs, then waist, then chest. Finally erect, I raised my hands.
“Come at me, fat boy,” he snarled.
“Fat boy!” I halted and stared at him. “I weigh less than I did in college, for God’s sake.”
“Come on, college boy,” he suggested.
“Better,” I muttered. I followed him around the room, accepting a couple of light hits to the face in order to set myself up for a gigantic, fight-ending punch, which arrived long after he’d jumped out of the way.
“You’re fighting his fight. You can’t do that,” the bear’s voice whispered in my ear.
I whipped around. “Who said that?” I demanded.
The crowd of watchers glanced at each other nervously. One of the women raised a tentative hand, looking apologetic. “Not you,” I snapped in irritation. She yanked her arm back down. No one else looked like a ventriloquist.
I swiveled back and faced my opponent, who was beaming with enjoyment. I took aim at the smile and went after it with viciousness in my heart, expending a lot of energy in what would have been a skillful attack if I’d hit him. I managed to connect with his shoulder a single time while he peppered me with blows—not a very good trade-off. My swell and my eyes stung. I was panting so hard that my throat felt like it was on fire. “Give up?” I gasped at him.
“He’s faster than you. You weigh more. Get him pinned in the corner,” my voice advised.
“Someone tell the bear to shut the hell up!” I shouted.
My opponent was waiting for me to recover enough to put up a pitiful resistance. “The corner!” the voice urged.
I pressed forward. This time, when my opponent jinked left I moved only to block, backing him up toward the corner. I hunched my shoulders and accepted punishment to my ribs again. Okay. He was running out of room to retreat. At the last moment he seemed to sense my plan and tried to dart to the right but I lunged and had him against the wall. My arms came around him and I squeezed.
He grunted and tried to pull my arms away. I held on and we toppled to the floor like drunken dancers at a wedding. He no longer looked happy.
Once he had squirmed around a little it seemed like the easiest thing in the world to catch his wrist and bend his arm back up behind him. He knew that was the end and went limp, surrendering. I lay on top of him and tried to suck in enough air to ensure continued consciousness.
“You wanna get off of me?” he finally suggested.
“Where you from?” I responded pleasantly, content to press down on his arm and watch his face turn gray.
“Cadillac,” he finally spat.
Cadillac is just down Highway 131 from Kalkaska. They don’t make Cadillacs there. They actually don’t make much of anything there, which leads to a high rate of frustration that often makes its way north on a motorcycle and winds up in my sister’s bar.
“Tell you what.” I stood up, careful to take his wrist with me, and he struggled to follow, wincing. “Next time you’re coming through from Cadillac, you get to my bar, you just keep going. Understand me?”
He nodded and I let him go, but carefully, like releasing a snake. He shot me a look but didn’t try to get back into it. Some of these guys, when I throw them out I spend the next week wondering if they are going to come back and set fire to the place, but I could see that for this one, the fun was using his karate moves on dumb, unsuspecting bouncers. I’d spoiled the game a bit by listening to the bear and falling on him like a dead tree.
Naturally everyone wanted to come up and tell me what a hell of a job I’d done, though if they’d had their eyes open they’d plainly seen the guy taking all the points up until the final round. I caught Becky staring at me darkly, and when I met her gaze her eyes shifted to the two girls who were cooing over a finally upright Jimmy. She turned away in disapproval.
Would I have handled it differently if the possibility of winning one of Jimmy’s hand-me-downs wasn’t in the air? No! Well, okay, yes. Was that so wrong? They both had that quality I found irresistible in women—they appeared to lack better options. If I hadn’t felt their eyes on me, I probably would have shouted at Becky to call the cops, which usually lets the air out of things pretty fast because then the bouncer wins no matter how many flying kicks you land on his cranium.
Not that my victory did me any good: The girls were so unimpressed with the champion fighter of the Black Bear Bar that they seemed to have forgotten I existed. After half an hour I waved at Becky. “Can you handle it from here? I need to go home and bleed internally.”
She peered around the bar. Other than Jimmy and his new girlfriends, we had Claude and Wilma in the corner, and the remaining two construction guys were back at the pool table, staring sightlessly at the cue ball even though it had stopped rolling. “Yeah, it’s quite a crowd, but I think I’ll be okay.”
“Good night, sis.”
“See ya, hero.”
Milt’s fifteen-year-old tow truck wanted to keep sleeping, but the dual batteries methodically cranked the engine until it finally rumbled like a grouchy lion. I scraped away the ice from the windshield and eased out into the night.
It was just past twelve. Time for a physics lesson.
Out of habit I hit the repo switch as soon as I was close—dousing lights, instruments, and anything else that glowed—with one click. Milt had invented it and called it “stealth mode,” but I was pretty sure I was still visible to Russian radar. It was simply a kill switch for everything emitting light so that I could sneak up on people in the tow truck, which meant there were no brake lights as I parked about fifteen yards from Einstein’s house, sliding into a dark place under the trees where my truck would be impossible to spot on such a black night. The precipitation had let up but a light patter of meltwater falling from the branches smothered my footfalls as I approached his place.
I paused at the bottom of the driveway and reviewed my plan: (a) go up to his truck; (b) take it. A thin blade of flexible steel, notched on one end—the slim jim—would gain me access to the cab. The dent puller was a claw with a thickly threaded screw on one end. Turn the screw and the claw would pull the ignition switch right out of the steering column. Once the switch was dangling there like a loose eyeball, I’d stick a screwdriver into the contact points, twist, and the truck would hopefully start faster than mine had.
New vehicles no longer used the steering column switch, but Einstein’s Chevy was one of the last trucks built during an era when manufacturers were more considerate of car thieves and repo men.
When the engine was running I’d have to do some back and forth before I could clear the cement steps, and backing around the abrupt elbow in the driveway would be more than a little difficult, but I was betting Einstein’s Friday night had ended with him drinking all of the brothers and sisters of the beer he’d been holding in his hand when we had our productive little chat, and that he would snooze through the whole thing.
So why was I hesitating?
Being a repo man requires what Milt calls “nerves of stupidity”: I usually handled danger by not thinking about it. And I wasn’t thinking about it now. Einstein didn’t scare me, his threat to “shoot me legal” didn’t scare me, and his goose didn’t scare me. I wasn’t picturing him with a gun. I wasn’t picturing anything, but my heart was pounding and my hands shook when I tried to read my watch in the black night.
What if the dream was some sort of foreshadowing? You dream about your death and then you die trying to steal a Chevy truck out of some Einstein’s driveway.
I didn’t like this. Something was wrong—I could feel it, even if I couldn’t see anything. Then I thought about Becky needing a thousand dollars to keep the Black Bear open. I’d get $250 for this repo. I had to have it.
So okay. Still shaking a little with anxiety, I crept up the driveway, slipping a little in the wet slush. There was the truck, jammed in right where it had been earlier. A half-inch of snow covered the windshield; hopefully it wouldn’t leave a film when I wiped it off.
I took another two steps forward and nearly shouted when three large outdoor spotlights flashed on, bathing me in harsh white light. Cursing, blinded, I scrambled away and rolled into the bushes by the goose shed, hugging the mud, trying to stay low. Motion detector.
The door banged open. Einstein Croft stood on the threshold, even uglier in his boxer shorts than he had been in a lumberjack shirt, though I’m sure part of my assessment came from the objectionable presence of the deer rifle in his hands.
He swung the rifle around in a slow circle, sighting over the top of it. I pressed down into the dirt, scarcely breathing for fear the fog of my breath would give me away. My heart hammered at my chest wall and I stared at him, willing him to see me as nothing more than a shadow under his sparse shrubbery.
A full minute passed and then the lights abruptly shut off the show. Now he was illuminated from within the house, and I saw the eagerness go out of him, the barrel of his gun drooping in disappointment. He’d been hoping to bag himself a repo man.
I lay there for a full five minutes after he went back inside, willing my body to calm down. In this part of the country a lot of people own guns and I’d had a few of them pointed in my general direction, but most of the time it was just to scare me. This had been to shoot me. I thought of the nightmare, of the sensation of a rifle bullet hitting me in the back of the head, dropping me onto the forest floor. I desperately did not want that to happen in real life.
After a moment my fear bled out and left me with anger. What did that idiot think he was doing? You don’t kill someone for repossessing your pickup truck! Forget the $250; this was personal now.
I pondered my options. Home motion detectors were usually not very sensitive. If I moved slowly, chances were the lights wouldn’t pop on until I put the truck in gear. I mentally ticked off the seconds it had taken Einstein to come to full alert once the spotlights flared. What had seemed like mere moments now, on reflection, felt like maybe two minutes. If I couldn’t start a pickup and back it down the driveway in less time than that, I didn’t deserve to be a repo man.
Once I decided to try it again, the same uneasiness settled over me—a dread-filled foreboding that I couldn’t shake off. What the heck was my problem?
I was just snaking forward through the muddy snow when I felt a stabbing pain in my Achilles, like something biting me. I rolled over and there was the goose, its neck uncoiling as it delivered another attack on my leg. “Hey!” I whispered sharply. I was trying to avoid setting off the motion detectors and here was this dumb bird, well, goosing me.
It hissed, parting its ridiculous lips and sticking its tongue out at me in what I was sure was some sort of insult. I pulled my legs away. “Stop it! That really hurts!” I commanded with all the authority of being from a superior species. I slithered another few feet and the goose launched itself into the air, flapping its wings.
The night was flooded with the searing white glare from the spotlights. I flung up an arm and the goose wings pummeled me as hard as the biker from Cadillac. Where were its survival instincts? It should have been terrified of me; I eat geese!
All right, the heck with this. I sprinted down the driveway, my shoes sliding and sending me down onto my butt. I heard the back door fly open again as I tripped and fell and rolled in the slush.
“Doris!” Einstein yelled.
I made it to the bottom of the driveway and paused. Of all the insults I’d suffered that night, having Albert Einstein call me Doris was the most surprising.
“Get back in the shed, Doris, you stupid duck!” he raged.
I felt my energy drain out of me as I trudged back to my truck. I’d been outsmarted by a man who named his goose Doris and thought it was a duck. I could not have been more depressed.
By the time I got home the woodstove in my small living room was down to a few coals; I stirred them and threw in some pine. My dog Jake thumped his tail at me and I bent down to scratch his head. Jake was maybe eight years old, a dog of unidentifiable and suspect DNA. His soulful eyes and floppy ears made it appear there was a basset hound on one of the lower limbs of his family tree, but from there he was fifty pounds of anyone’s guess. I’d found him in the back of a repo—not the backseat, but the trunk. We’re supposed to return all personal property from a repossession but I’d decided on the spot that Jake’s people had lost their right of ownership.
“Hey, Jake, you got any goose hunter in you?” I asked.
Jake used to ride with me on repos, but he was middle-aged when I found him and lately had decided he’d rather nap. I didn’t blame him—the second I found someone to feed me and give me treats I was going to retire, too.
“Jake, busy day today?”
Jake gave me a “you have no idea” look, rolling his big brown eyes at me.
“You need to go out?”
Jake has a dog door but more and more often was too lazy to use it unless I firmly suggested he do so. I gently tugged on his collar and he groaned to his feet, slipping outside in front of me and then giving me disgusted looks over how wet it was. He lifted his leg quickly and then briskly went back to the door, pointedly sniffing at it so I’d take the hint. We went back in and he hustled to his blanket and collapsed as if he’d spent the day mining coal.
I sang him the “good boy” song—basically me just singing “good boy” over and over, “good boy good boy g-oooo-d b-ooo-y.” Big finish. Jake didn’t applaud.
A bottle of Patrón tequila slapped into my hand with easy familiarity from its perch on the counter, and I sat down in a chair, watching the woodstove flames licking at the wood. The increasing light soon was illuminating the beer bottles on the coffee table. I stared at the reflection, taking very tiny sips from the Patrón every few minutes. The college boys who somehow found the Black Bear in the summer always poured the stuff in shot glasses and messed around with salt and lime, but my dad had taught me the way to drink tequila was from a snifter, neat, doing little more than wetting your tongue and allowing the fumes to fill your nasal cavities before you swallowed.
Over time, I’d sort of given up on the snifter.
Taking stock of my life: I was broke; I lived alone; I’d had two fights in the past couple of hours; won one, lost one (to a bird)—though both of them left me much worse off than my opponents—and I had a phone number in my pocket I somehow doubted I had the courage to ever call.
“What a dump,” the bear’s voice pronounced.
I sat stock still, turning my head to the right only after I mentally followed myself into the house, recalling locking the door before I threw on the piece of wood. No one had slipped in behind me; Jake and I were by ourselves in my home. Bob the Black Bear was, as far as I knew, still down at the bar.
Who said that? I asked within my head.
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When I opened my eyes the next morning it took me about ten minutes to do an inventory of my injuries. My ear hurt from the kick in the head, my ribs throbbed, my arms were bruised, and my shins ached from where Doris had pecked them. I staggered into the living room like a hundred-year-old man. “What a dump,” I muttered to myself. Jake sighed in agreement.
After being so severely beaten by man and fowl I would have expected to sleep easily, but I’d spent most of the night brooding over what it meant that I could hear a voice in my head. I wasn’t sure schizophrenia was the right term for it, didn’t know if there was a pill you could take or if it required surgery—I was just pretty sure that whatever was going on, it wasn’t covered by my health insurance because I didn’t have health insurance. And was it Bob the Bear? No, I’d heard it speaking here, last night. (I was careful to mentally regard the voice as an “it,” believing that calling it a “he” would somehow make it worse.)
Whatever was happening, though, I knew I had to play it cool. If I screamed in surprise every time I heard it, I’d wind up in the loony bin.
I fished around in the refrigerator for something edible and came up with the meat loaf Becky had given me a few nights before, still wrapped in foil. I cut a piece, squirted on some ketchup, poured myself a cup of instant coffee, and sat down for breakfast.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” my voice said.
Sticking with my game plan, I didn’t gasp and jerk around to see who’d spoken. “You hear that, Jake?” I asked calmly. Jake didn’t even seem to hear me. He lay motionless, not even coming over to check out the meat loaf.
“You can’t eat like that for breakfast, you’ll clog your arteries,” the voice admonished.
“So I’ve developed a split personality and it’s become a nutritionist,” I announced out loud.
“No, I’m not,” it answered defensively.
“So you’re what, a boxing manager?”
“No, I mean I’m not a split anything, I am my own person.”
“Yeah? Where are you, then?”
There was a pause. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, you sure as heck aren’t here. Unless ... you’re not an eight-foot rabbit, are you?”
“I’m not Harvey. My name is Alan Lottner.”
“Alan Lottner.” I cut another slice of cold meat loaf. Play it cool, play it cool. “Uh-huh. Well, what can I do for you, Alan?”
“I’m ... I’m not sure what is going on.”
“Well, I think I have a pretty good idea. I’ve been living alone for a long time now so my brain has furnished me with a friend to play with. An invisible friend who will soon start telling me it’s okay to set fires.”
There was a silence. I stopped eating and cocked my head. Maybe all I had to do was identify the problem and the neurosis would simply go away. Self-administered psychotherapy.
“I admit this is weird,” the voice stated slowly, “but somehow I am inside of you. When you look around, I can see what you see.”
“Great, I am a man trapped in a man’s body.”
Alan Lottner chuckled: I actually heard him laughing in my ear. The sound unnerved me—whatever was going on inside my head, it couldn’t be good that I could hear laughter.
“I don’t know how I got here,” he confided after a moment.
“Well, as soon as you figure it out you can leave the same way.” I was pretty pleased with how cool I was playing this—maybe he would leave.
“At first I thought it was a dream. It’s like that, because even though I can see and hear and even feel everything, I don’t have any control over my body.”
“Okay, your body ... but where’s my body? What’s happening to me?”
“Sorry to have to tell you this, but I think the real concern is what’s happening to me,” I corrected. “I’m having a conversation with a voice inside my head. Clearly, the stress of living life in the fast lane in Kalkaska is getting to me.” I finished my meat loaf and tossed the aluminum foil at the trash can. It bounced off the rim and joined the pile of missed shots cluttering the floor.
“Are you going to pick that up?”
“No, it’s how I keep score,” I answered. The silence I received in reply had a huffy quality to it. Great, my voice had no sense of humor. “So Alan, why don’t you go out and do some work while I stay home and watch a little basketball?”
“I ... look, is your name Ruddy?”
“I thought so, though at first I thought they were saying ‘Buddy.’ Like Buddy Hackett.”
“No, it’s Ruddy, for Ruddick. Mother’s maiden name.”
I pulled on some clothes and went into the bathroom to comb my hair and brush my teeth. “Stop!” Alan commanded.
I froze, raising an eyebrow.
“This is just really strange, looking at my reflection, only having it be somebody else,” he told me.
“Didn’t we already have this conversation? Whose reflection is it?”
“You know what I mean. I guess I sort of halfway thought that it would be me in the mirror, and that I would find out that I had amnesia and suddenly woke up six four and three hundred pounds.”
“Six two and two-twenty. Watch it.”
“What happened to your nose?”
“Broke it. Car accident. What happened to your body?”
“I guess I lost it.”
“Tough break. Hate it when that happens.” I pulled on a jacket. “Well, I guess you might as well come along,” I told him. “Let’s go, Jake.”
Jake considered it briefly, then lowered his head back down. “Now, boy, let’s go,” I commanded sternly. He didn’t move. “Hey!” I snapped my fingers. Sometimes you have to show them who the alpha male is.
Jake closed his eyes.
I finally got him to move by pulling a box of dog biscuits out of the cupboard. Once up, he grudgingly allowed me to walk him around the block, lifting his leg on a few leafless shrubs out of moral obligation, but when we got back he fell on his blanket with a “thank God we got that out of our system” expression.
I drove over to Milton’s office. Milton Kramer is a short, stocky guy who wears white short-sleeved shirts every day of the year and has a head that looks like it has been waxed and buffed. His skin appeared to have never been exposed to even a moment of sunshine. Milt’s life revolves around his work—I’ve almost never seen him out with his wife, whose name isn’t Ruby but that’s always what I want to call her when they have me over to their house for dinner.
“Hello there and good morning, Ruddy. Say hello to my nephew, here. Ruddy McCann, this is Kermit Kramer.”
Kermit didn’t get out of his chair, but he extended his hand with a smile. He had Milton’s pushed-in-looking nose and thick features, though his hair was dark and curly and his complexion a Mediterranean shade. “Kermit” was a good name for him; he was shaped a little like a frog, with narrow sloping shoulders and big wide hips.
“Kermit’s going to help me out a little this summer.”
“Summer,” I agreed dubiously. I looked down at the wet snow I’d tracked in.
“Yep. Maybe you’d take him around, show him the ropes?”
I nodded carefully. Milton didn’t need two men; was I being asked to train my replacement? Milton was the sort of person who always looked out for his family, even his brother’s sons. I was painfully aware that if I weren’t a repo man I’d be nothing.
I sat in the metal chair facing Milton’s desk. “Got anything for me?”
“Yeah, believe so.” Milton put on a pair of reading glasses and looked over the tops of them at a file. “Ford Credit. A guy somewhere in Traverse City, said he’d make up the two payments he’s behind and then disappeared instead. Ford Mustang.”
“Okay.” I reached for the file.
“Mind if I matriculate a little?” Kermit asked, intersecting my reach with his own.
“If you what?” I asked politely.
“I just would like to see. You know, if I have any ideas.”
“Sure, sure, that’s a good idea,” Milton beamed. “Let’s let him metic-whatever, see if he can find the guy.”
“Okay.” I paused. “Milt, I heard you got some bad paper from Jimmy Growe.”
Milton glanced up sharply. “Who told you about that?”
“Ah.” Milton took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, as if looking at me over the top of the lenses was tiring him out. “Yeah, that’s right. I guess he spent the money already.”
“He bought a motorcycle with some of it. I told him to sell it.”
“Good, good. I don’t want the damn thing.”
“What’s the deal with the checks, though? Jimmy said he didn’t know where they came from.”
“That’s right. Bank is up in Traverse. They won’t tell me the name on the account, and they’re those starter checks.”
“Why’d you cash them?”
“I know, I should have thought it through better. I knew Jimmy wouldn’t be up to anything, is all. And I figured, why would someone send him the money, if it wasn’t legitimate?”
“Want me to look into it for you?”
Milt shrugged. “I don’t know what good it would do. No law broken, Jimmy never did anything to earn the money. I just should never have cashed them.”
“I’ll be up near Traverse anyway, tracing this Mustang. Something’s not right, Milt. I mean, you know Jimmy. Sending him those checks was a deliberate way to get him into trouble. Maybe I can recover something from that end for you.”
Milt grunted. “Sure, look into it. I took ten points; you can have all of it if you can recover my five grand. Last time he owed me money it took something like eight years for him to pay me back.”
I nodded, understanding. Milt was fine with paying me, but if I couldn’t track down somebody to make good on the debt in Traverse City, I would be collecting from Jimmy.
I exhaled. I hated this next subject. “So, Milt. I’m wondering if I could have an advance on some of the work I’m doing? We’re a little short with our suppliers down at the Bear.”
Milt loans money for a living, so the look he gave me was all business. “How’s it looking with Albert Einstein?” he asked.
“I touched the collateral yesterday.” I told him about the goose named Doris, and both Kermit and Milton howled at the picture of me being run off by poultry, leading me to conclude that neither one of them had been clubbed with goose wings before.
“Ya know, if the goose really attacked you, they should euphemize it,” Kermit advised.
“Euphemize? You mean, call it ‘Christmas Dinner’ or something?” I smiled.
Kermit frowned. “No, I meant put it to sleep.”
I decided it wasn’t worth trying to explain. I was watching Milt pull out his big checkbook and scrawl in it. He handed me more than I was expecting: $750. “There’s advance on Einstein—I know you’ll get him if you’ve seen the truck—plus the fee on Jimmy. I figure with you babysitting him I’ll get paid one way or another.” Milt wagged his finger. “One percent of the balance per month on Jimmy, my interest rate on that.”
I nodded. Twelve percent per year, better than the credit cards. Milt lends money but he’s not the Mafia.
“And hey, would you mind taking Kermit along with you now? You’re headed up to Traverse, right?”
“Only if he brings a dictionary.”
Milton laughed. “He does have a hell of a vocabulary, doesn’t he?”
Kermit and I stood. On his feet, he appeared to be no more than five foot six; next to him I felt like a giant. In high school he would have played center—all of his weight down low like that. In college he would have sat in the stands along with everyone else his size.
I turned at the door. “Hey, catch up with you in a minute, Kermit.” Once he had passed outside I came back into the room. “Milton, can I ask you something?” He nodded carefully.
I jammed my hands in my pockets and glanced around the room. “Have you ever had voices in your head? Talking to you?”
Milton stared. “You got voices in your head?”
“No, forget it. I mean yes, I do, but it is only one voice. He says his name is Alan.”
“You got a voice in your head named Alan?” Milton’s eyes were looking sort of milky. I wondered if he was calculating how long it would take the cops to arrive if he lunged for the phone.
“Forget it, it’s nothing.”
“I’m afraid you’ve got the madness, son,” he whispered.
“Repo Madness. It happens. The stress of snatching units off the streets, one day, you just crack up. I once saw a guy bigger than you sit right down on the curb and start to cry like a baby. Madness got him bad. He was never able to take another car after that day.” Milt beckoned and I reluctantly leaned forward. “Why do you think I never steal any of my own cars anymore,
I thought about it. “Because Ruby would kill you?”
He blinked. “Ruby? The hell is Ruby?”
“My wife is Trisha.”
“That’s her name! Trisha!”
“Jesus, you got voices in your head and you think I married some bimbo named Ruby?”
“For God’s sake, Milt, it’s just one voice and I have always thought your wife’s name was Ruby. I mean, I knew it wasn’t, but I couldn’t think of her any other way.” Already, the name Trisha was fading from my brain, replaced by a giant neon sign blinking RUBY, RUBY, RUBY.
Milt eyed me for a minute. “It’s the madness, Ruddy,” he pronounced finally. “I just got the madness. One day everything is fine, and the next, no matter how easy the snatch, I start getting so damned scared I can barely move. Then I’m pulling a voluntary, guy voluntarily hands me the keys, and the same thing happens—my heart starts to pound and my hands shake. That’s when I knew I had to give it up, before I lost it completely.” He looked at me shrewdly. “Before I started hearing voices.”
I remembered the dream, and how my heart had been pounding the “Night of the Attack of Doris the Goose.” Could this really be what was going on? Repo Madness.
I shook it off. “Look, just forget about it, okay? I’m fine. Thanks. No problem. I’ll find this skip and look into Jimmy’s checks, okay?”
Milton nodded sadly. As I backed up, my heel caught the lip of the rug and I tripped a bit, stumbling. He just watched with wise eyes, probably thinking this was another symptom.
“So you’re a repo man? That’s what the whole thing was about last night? I thought you were a cop or something,” Alan complained as I left Milt’s office.
“You don’t like it, go inhabit someone else’s psychosis,” I growled silently, keeping the dialogue in my head where it belonged. I expected a flip response, but instead I got back silence, with a bit of an impatient flavor to it. I stopped in the hallway. “So, no lippy comment? I just called you a psychosis,” I challenged him mentally.
“Well?” he finally demanded. “What are we doing? Why don’t you say something?”
“You mean you can only hear me if I talk?” I asked out loud.
“Well, of course,” Alan replied a bit indignantly. “You think I can read minds?”
There were just too many things wrong with that question to respond to it. “Listen, Alan, we have to discuss something. I think I am handling this pretty well. I mean, I have a voice inside my head, but I’m not overreacting. But this isn’t normal. I’m obviously losing my grip. You have to go away now, Alan.”
“I can’t go away, Ruddy. What do you think, I can just float out and up to the stars or something?”
“I don’t know what I think. I’m not sure it matters what I think. All I know is, I can’t go around talking out loud to this voice in my head because people just don’t do that. Not mentally healthy people.”
“You’re saying I am just some sort of figment of your imagination. I resent the implication,” he said loftily.
“You resent? You? Let me ask you, do you hear a voice in your head? Huh? No, you don’t. You can’t even hear me in my head! So don’t tell me about implications. The implication is, I am going crazy and am going to wind up in a room with soft walls, that’s the implication.”
“Well, obviously there’s no talking to you when you’re in this sort of mood.”
“What I am saying is there’s no talking to me, period.”
I paused, glaring at the wall, because what else was I supposed to look at?
When Alan spoke his voice was suddenly plaintive and small-sounding. “But Ruddy, I need your help. I think I know why I’m not ... not in myself anymore. My body, I mean. I think I know what happened.”
“Okay, let’s hear it.”
I blinked. “Dead?” I repeated incredulously.
“Murdered. I think I was murdered, Ruddy.” I stood frozen, still staring at the wall.
My Repo Madness seemed to be getting worse by the minute.
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