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'The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man' Chapters 7 & 8

illustration of a man holding a jug of water and wearing a poncho holding a snarling bear head over his eyes like a helmet, standing under the night sky and a crescent moon

Illustration by Steve Vance

 

7

There Never Was an Alan Lottner

 

Alan had been like a loose tooth—irritating and constantly demanding attention—but when it is finally gone the hole it leaves behind is, in some ways, worse. I sat in my living room, watching the firelight reflect off my empty beer bottles in a festive fashion, and wondered what the psychiatrists would say if I told them how much I missed my psychosis.

Sensing something, Jake wandered over and nosed my hand, staring up at me with soulful eyes. “You’re right, Jakey. I’m not alone at all.” I scratched his ears and he groaned, his eyes half-lidded, until he collapsed at my feet.

I reached for my book, my schizophrenia behind me. My mother had been a nonstop reader and when I inherited the house I found boxes and boxes of novels stacked in the basement. I sorted out a couple that I vaguely remembered her carrying around and set them out as if she had just been there reading and had put down her book to start dinner. Maybe that was the start of my Repo Madness, because I knew it was irrational, but the sight of those books gave me comfort.

Eventually I became curious and idly picked one up and started to leaf through it. It was The Charm School by Nelson DeMille, and I honestly thought it would be about women learning manners from some uptight lady with her hair pulled back in a bun. But it was a thriller—my mother was addicted to suspense novels and mysteries, and before long I was hooked on them myself.

When I could afford to I added to the collection—Carl Hiaasen, Andrew Gross, Dave Barry, Lee Child—and when money was tight I went to Mom’s boxes and revisited old classics. Right now I was on an Alistair MacLean jag: I’d picked up Ice Station Zebra because it sounded like it was a novel about Kalkaska, and now I was rereading The Guns of Navarone. I had my book, my dog, and my chair. What else did a man need?

I forgot to grab the Patrón bottle, and once I was sitting down it was too much of an effort to heave myself back up to get it. I turned the pages until my eyes sagged shut of their own accord.

About an hour later I jerked awake to the sound of a great crash, the noise so startling that even Jake got to his feet. I went to my door and yanked it open.

Claude and Janelle were on the porch, laughing at each other while Claude tried to extract his hand from her blouse.

“Oh, Claude,” I said in dismay.

“Ruddy! Ruddy, I’m getting a divorce, you know,” he blurted when he saw my expression.

“Claude,” I repeated sadly.

Janelle gave him a long and disgustingly wet kiss on the mouth, which Claude accepted hungrily. “Welcome to the single scene in Kalkaska, darling,” I think she said. Her eyes were deliberately evading mine, and the way she clung to Claude, less from lust than for structural support, told me a lot more bourbon was flowing through her veins than was typical. Janelle had always straddled the line between being a drinker and a drunk—apparently tonight she felt she required some extra juice to help her go through with her decisions.

Jake decided he’d had enough of this nonsense and brushed against my legs as he turned and went back to his blanket on the floor.

“I need ... I need the key for upstairs, Ruddy,” Claude gasped as he pulled away from Janelle’s lips. He gestured up the outside stairs to the door of the second-floor “apartment.”

I opened my door. “Come on in, Claude.”

They both stopped groping and stared at me, blinking in noncomprehension.

“You can sleep on my couch.” I reached for my jacket. “I’ll drive Janelle home.”

“But ...” Claude crashed in through the doorway, blasting me with vodka breath as his whisper found my ear. I winced as he leaned against the bruises in my ribs. “But Ruddy, remember the slander plan. ...”

“Claude.” I grabbed him by the shoulders and peered into his bloodshot eyes. “Are you out of your mind? Wilma would have your balls for breakfast. Get in here.” I yanked and the force of my pull propelled him across the room, where he twisted and fell onto the couch as if it were a special gymnastic trick we’d been practicing together.

“Come on, Janelle,” I told her, gripping her elbow so she wouldn’t slip on the ice. She accompanied me without protest, but in my truck she huddled against her door like an animal caught in a cage. I fished for something to say to her but didn’t catch anything. I looked at her light blond hair and for some reason it made me sad that it was so stylishly cut; she’d probably spent an hour on it before going to the Black Bear and hooking up with Claude Wolfinger.

I pulled into her driveway and stopped. She didn’t get out; she just sat there, and I sighed, thinking I should apologize somehow, but not knowing what she needed to hear from me.

When she turned and met my eyes it was as if we were having a conversation about loneliness, and had gotten to the point in the discussion where we were asking ourselves why we didn’t just go ahead and cure two cases of it with one shot.

The “single scene in Kalkaska.” Who was she kidding? We were it.

I stared back at her. Since coming back home I’d been sleeping exclusively with myself—would it be so wrong to reach out for a little human warmth, maybe give some in return?

I might have turned off the truck and followed Janelle into her house if it weren’t for the piece of paper with the name “Katie” written on it. Janelle and I could collapse gratefully, or at least desperately, into each other’s arms, but what if Katie turned out to be real? Or, if not Katie, someone like her, and then I would be just one of a series of men dropping Janelle for another woman. The thought of participating in that process made me recoil.

Janelle read the answer in my eyes and her lips formed a bitter smile. She pushed open the door and walked away from me with her head at a stiff angle. I waited until she had turned on the lights in her house before backing into the street, and my last view of her was of her shadow watching me from her front window.

It was just past two in the morning. I was wide awake and in the kind of bad mood that could only be fixed by stealing someone else’s car.

At Milt’s lot I swapped my vehicle for the tow truck, then drove down and let myself into the Black Bear without turning on the lights. The only illumination came from Becky’s TV show, where some guy who probably doubled as an underwear model was ripping insulation out of an attic. Bob the Bear stood sentry in the corner, silently watching my approach as I stood on a chair and unscrewed the bolts on the back of his neck.

Something about Bob I don’t think Becky even knew: his head came off.

I unbolted the bear head and stuffed it and a big rain poncho in the front seat of the tow truck. From the storeroom in the back, I felt rather than saw the couple of rifles in my dad’s old gun closet, pulling out the pellet gun I’d received for Christmas when I was fifteen. I stood in the ambient light drifting in through the front windows and turned it over in my hands, examining it.

What is that?” Alan demanded loudly.

“Agrhh!” I shouted, staggering back. “Geez, you scared the hell out of me, Alan! Don’t do that!”

Why are you so jumpy?”

“Where have you been? I thought you were dead. I mean, not dead the way you say you are, but dead as in not in my head anymore.”

Oh. I was asleep.

“You sleep?” I responded incredulously.

Sure. Mostly it’s just been little naps, but today I think I was out for a couple of hours. I needed it, too.

“Wait a minute, what else are you doing in there?” I demanded.

“I’m not going to the bathroom, if that’s what you’re implying,” he huffed.

“I have no idea what I’m implying. I can’t believe you sleep, that makes no sense to me.” I closed up the bar and returned to my truck. “As opposed to the part of this that does make sense,” I added after a moment. I looked down at the rifle in my hands and actually heard him draw in a breath, proving my point—none of this made sense. He couldn’t draw in a breath, he had no lungs.

 

What are you planning to do with that gun?

“I’m going on a little wild-goose chase,” I explained, starting the truck and heading north to East Jordan.

You’re going to shoot Doris? You can’t do that!” he protested indignantly.

“What do you want me to do, euphemize her?”

Huh?

“The goose bit me and nearly broke my arm.”

I know, I felt it.

“Well okay, then. Alan, I need that repo. I’ve already been advanced the money on it. Milt will carry me a bit but soon he’s going to want interest payments at the least—and meanwhile, I have my own expenses. You need to go along with me on this; I know what I’m doing.”

I parked the tow truck a hundred yards down from Einstein’s place and wandered into the trees, circling so that when I approached his home it was from the rear, where I had a perfect view of his truck—and the open doorway of the shed, where I could barely make out the white form of Doris, sleeping peacefully. I looked at her over the gun sight.

Ruddy! Please,” Alan begged.

I swung the gun barrel over and sighted down on the three floodlights, squeezing the trigger and taking each bulb out with a satisfying plink. Doris stuck her neck out curiously, but didn’t leave the shed.

Why did you do that? Make me think you were going to kill the goose,” Alan demanded as I made my way back to the tow truck.

“Just having fun.”

Well, I think you’re a horrible person.

“You’re welcome to leave anytime, Alan.” I lifted the snarling bear head and set it on me like an ill-fitting hat, holding it up there with one hand and draping the poncho over the whole assembly with the slit in front so I’d be able to see. I grabbed a gallon jug of water and headed back to Einstein’s house.

I’m not sure what Doris thought she saw coming up the driveway, but it was huge and had the face of a bear in a bad mood and that was enough to keep her quiet. I slipped over to the pickup under cover of uninterrupted darkness, making motion without detection, and poured the contents of the water jug directly into the gas tank. Doris eyed me uneasily the entire time from within the safety of her shed, and didn’t respond when I waved at her as I departed.

I didn’t know what time my customer left for work in the morning and didn’t want to take a chance of missing him, so I settled in the driver’s seat of the cab and tried to make myself comfortable. From where I sat I could easily see Einstein when he left for his job at PlasMerc, where he probably worked on the line, assembling subatomic particles.

“Hey Alan, you awake?”

Yes. Where did you get the bear head? That was a pretty good idea.

I told him about my father, how I grew up playing at the feet of Bob the Bear, and how he showed me something no one else in the world knew, that a couple of bolts in the back were all that held Bob’s head on.

“How about you, Alan, you grow up around here?” I asked carefully.

Why do you ask it like it’s a trick question?” he responded.

I blew out some air in exasperation. “Just answer me, okay?”

Alan told me he’d moved to East Jordan because that was where his wife Marget lived. He met her on an airplane, sat next to her on a flight to Denver, where he was living at the time, asked her to dinner that night and every night for the next six, and when she left Denver to return home to Michigan he made up his mind to follow. Her father owned a real estate company in East Jordan, and that’s where he found himself working. In Denver he’d managed a movie theater complex in the Cherry Creek area but the work wasn’t portable—not too many theater complexes in a town of twenty-five hundred people. Working out of East Jordan, though, Alan was able to do pretty well for himself selling lakefront property and hunting cabins.

As he spoke I ticked off the things he was telling me. I’d never even been to Colorado and had never heard of Cherry Creek, but I could look it up and see if such a place existed. He seemed pretty knowledgeable about both movie theaters and real estate sales, competently fielding my questions as I put them to him. If he wasn’t real, how could he know all of this stuff? If I were schizophrenic, wouldn’t my split personality be confined to my own knowledge base?

I started the tow truck to pump a little heat into the cab. “So, Alan ... I’m sorry about when you told me you were dead. I’ve just ... I mean, what do you say when someone tells you that? It’s not exactly something that ever gets covered all the time in Dear Abby.”

I felt completely ignored.

“Well, okay, but I said I was sorry.”

You think this is easy for me?

“What is your problem?” I snapped. “I said I was sorry. What more do you want, a box of candy?”

He was silent for a bit. “I want you to find the people who did this to me and bring them to justice,” he finally said.

“Oh ho, now we’re down to it! You want me to kill somebody, don’t you?”

No, of course not!” he sputtered.

“No? No? Are you sure? Because a second ago it sure sounded like you wanted me to find some people—not just one person, now, but a whole group of people—and do to them what they supposedly did to you.”

Not a whole group, just two people, two men.

“And then I suppose they’ll be in my head, too,” I raged. “And they’ll want me to kill somebody else, and pretty soon the TV networks will be in my neighborhood, interviewing my friends who’ll be saying, ‘Gee, he seemed like such a nice guy, who knew that he had all those bodies buried in his basement?’ ”

You don’t believe me,” Alan replied, hurt.

“Which is weird, because this is all so plausible.”

Look, couldn’t we just ... we’re in East Jordan. Won’t you just let me prove it to you? We can go to my house, talk to my wife, see my little girl. Then you’ll know.

“Your little girl? How old?”

She’s sixteen. Her name is Kathy, Kathy Lottner. My wife’s name is Marget Lottner.

I mulled it over. “I can’t believe I’m going to do this,” I finally muttered.

Great!

“But not right now.” I shut the truck off, and it rattled into silence. “Right now, I’m on what we professional repo men call a stakeout.”

That’s what cops call it.

“Right, they stole it from us.”

It was cold when I lurched awake at dawn. Shivering, I started the tow truck and let the wipers and defroster work on the layer of ice on the windshield. Alan was quiet and I could feel that he was asleep, now that I understood what it meant when I experienced the peculiar sensation of him not being there.

About half an hour later, just as I was talking myself into abandoning my post for the time it took to get a cup of coffee, Einstein Croft wheeled down his driveway and gunned his truck, his back end sliding as he headed off for work. I gave him a half mile and then unhurriedly crawled off after him; I knew where he was going—PlasMerc, home of the surly gate guard.

I was close enough behind him on the highway to see him speed up and slow down twice, his tailpipe blowing clouds of black smoke as he tried to clear his engine by stomping on his accelerator. Satisfied that his erratic progress was a sign that the water in his fuel line was doing its job, I pulled a U-turn and sped off in the opposite direction.

Half an hour later I cruised back down the road and there was his pickup, all by itself, emergency flashers blinking away. Einstein must have thumbed a ride to work. I eased up to his truck and hooked it with the hoist, drawing nothing but a curious glance from the few vehicles that drove by. Car breaks down, car gets towed, God bless America.

You might think you’re a genius, Einstein, but you cannot outsmart the repo man.

I called Milton from the junkyard we used as a storage lot in East Jordan, and he grunted in satisfaction. “The cosigner’s a real nice guy, too. Makes you wonder, since his kid is such a jerk.”

“His kid’s a walking jerk,” I corrected, somewhat gleefully. Repo humor never gets old for me.

I hung up, feeling like the greasy phone had probably left a black mark on my cheek. Everything in the junkyard was coated with motor oil, even the people.

This place is disgusting,” Alan muttered. One of the mechanics was standing at the other end of the counter, so I didn’t reply. I fished out the card I’d gotten from the woman at the bank in Traverse City, and dialed her number to see how things were progressing in the mystery of Jimmy’s checks, leaving a thumbprint on the paper in the process.

“Yes, Mr. McCann, I remember,” Maureen the banker told me when I introduced myself.

“I’m wondering if you were able to—”

“I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to help you in this matter,” she interrupted.

I blinked. This did not sound like the motherly person I remembered. “But I thought you said ... ” I started slowly.

“I have no information for you.”

“Maureen, are you saying you can’t help me, or won’t help me?” I persisted. “I’m confused.”

There was a noise, as if her kind nature was being strangled, but she replied firmly. “I can’t help you, Mr. McCann. Please don’t call here anymore.”

I listened to the click in disbelief. What could have happened to make her so uncooperative?

The good feeling from reintroducing Einstein to the concept of nonvehicular travel had evaporated. I felt tired and old as I fired up the tow truck.

There’s something strange going on,” Alan observed.

“Right ... this coming from a man who claims to be a ghost stuck in my brain.”

No, I mean, the change in her demeanor was striking.

“Yeah, all of a sudden she’s mean.”

No, not mean. More like scared,” Alan observed after a moment.

I cocked my head, considering. “You’re right. She was frightened.”

Since I had nothing else to do and we were already in East Jordan, I agreed to drive Alan around to check out his past. He directed me with barely restrained excitement up North Street, past homes that would probably cost a million dollars if they weren’t located in what the locals awkwardly called “northern lower Michigan.” Here, a nice four-bedroom house could be had for what would be a down payment anywhere else. Made you wonder why the people living in Phoenix didn’t move here en masse. I flipped on my heater to dry up the puddle of melted snow at my feet.

East Jordan sits at the south end of Lake Charlevoix, which is a beautiful, deep blue body of water that joins Lake Michigan via a river. Tourists mostly ignore East Jordan—to its benefit, I believe. In the winter a few small factories plus a big one, the East Jordan Iron Works, keep the economic blood flowing, and a small flock of summer people come in for July and August to hang out in little cottages mostly built in the twenties. It’s a poor cousin to Charlevoix, the town on the north end of the lake, where all the yachts bob up and down in the summer. I like the people in East Jordan the way I like the citizens of Kalkaska and the way I probably would dislike the yacht people in Charlevoix if they ever invited me aboard their boats.

Alan urged me to slow down as we approached his house, as if to savor the anticipation, and then went quiet. I eased over to the curb and looked at a vacant lot at the address he’d given me, the snow smoothly untracked and an old Plymouth up on blocks, both engine and hood missing. “Where’s the house, Alan?” I asked softly. I moved my eyes slowly, carefully, like a searchlight probing for escaping convicts. I wanted him to take it all in. “Is that your car, maybe?”

This is impossible. It has to be here!

“Let’s go check out the office,” I suggested.

According to Alan, his real estate office was right on Second Street, a block from Main. We pulled up in front of what was obviously an ice-cream shop and nothing else.

This wasn’t here! It was an old two-story building with a bay window on top. Next to it was a shoe store; they’re both gone.

“These stores have been here as long as I can remember, Alan,” I said gently. I couldn’t really recall what had been here when I was in high school, but since I started working for Milt a couple of years ago, the shops had been open for business.

It’s like ... it’s like someone is following around after me, erasing my past,” he whispered.

I didn’t advise him that it sounded like my split personality was developing paranoia. Instead I sat there, letting his mind work on it. (Or was it my mind?) He recovered pretty quickly. “Okay let’s ... let’s go to the school, see if Kathy is there. I know she’ll be there! And Marget wouldn’t leave town, her parents are dead but all of her friends are here. I know! Let’s go talk to the guy who runs the iron works, Mr. Malpass. I sold him a house on Highway 66, I’ll show it to you.

“Alan.” I sighed. “Listen to me.”

I know what you’re going to say, but dammit, Ruddy, I can prove to you I exist!

“Don’t you think it’s likely that the reason your house wasn’t there, and your office wasn’t there, is because I made them up, and I made you up, too?”

For God’s sake, Ruddy!” Alan replied, anguished.

I pulled the tow truck away from the curb. “I have to face the fact that I’ve been talking to myself, which isn’t exactly a sign of good mental health.”

No, you’re not! I’m a real person!

“You need to face the fact, too,” I told him, as if that made any sense.

I spent the afternoon picking up a voluntary repo way north in a tiny spit of a place called Cross Village. The man who owned the Ford Explorer had left his keys in it when he took his family and moved back to Detroit and, as a further assistance to the repo man, had taken an ax and whacked the living crap out of the thing. I knew it was an ax because the head of it was buried in the windshield, the handle snapped off and pointing skyward like the business end of a sundial.

The whole time I was occupied with hauling in the Ford, my voice was blabbering away, reciting from the Book of Alan. I learned his Social Security number and that his father’s nickname was “Boots.” He told me his first real girlfriend wouldn’t kiss him unless he gave her chocolate. He recited the names of at least fifty people he claimed could verify that he’d once lived.

I snorted in derision. “I can see me calling them up. ‘Hello, have you heard of Alan Lottner? Did you kiss him for chocolate? Because I’ve got him in my head.’”

It was dark and cold by the time I got back to Kalkaska, and my body ached from camping out in the tow truck, which I exchanged for my pickup at Milt’s lot. Tonight, I decided, the Black Bear could do without a bouncer. I eyed the bear head on the seat next to me, wondering what people thought of Bob the Headless Bear.

Jake’s groan of a greeting as I limped in the door matched my sentiment exactly: time for bed. But everything changed when I saw the note posted to my refrigerator. Becky’s handwriting. Ruddy, need you to get down to the Black Bear now. Hurry!

 


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8

The Soul of Lisa Marie

 

My heart lurching around in my chest, I sprinted down the street, my legs acting like they had never been asked to run before. A couple of blocks and I was drained of oxygen—how had I gotten so out of shape?

The bar was completely dark, which was all wrong. I fumbled with the keys, finally managing to fling the door open. When my hand found the light switch the room roared with noise. “Surprise!”

I staggered back. More than a dozen people stood there in party hats, grinning at me wildly. “Happy birthday, Ruddy!” Becky called.

“Holy smokes,” I panted. I stumbled in and accepted a beer. “What are you doing? My birthday’s not for a week.”

“Yes, that’s the nature of a surprise; it is unexpected,” Becky explained calmly, putting a cone-shaped hat on my head and kissing my cheek. “Happy three-oh, old man.”

My friends crowded around, including my boss and his wife. I felt strangely awkward at the center of attention, hoping they weren’t expecting a speech. “Hey there, Milt. Hi, Ruby.”

Trisha!” Alan hissed.

“I mean Trisha!”

“Happy birthday to you,” Kermit enthused.

“Kermit,” I greeted a bit darkly.

Be nice,” Alan warned.

My cake was decorated with a tow truck hauling away what looked like a Ferrari, something that had never happened in real life. I blew out the candles and the smoke misted my gaze a little. There’d been a time when all of my cakes were decorated with footballs and goalposts.

Hey, you okay, Ruddy?” Alan asked. I felt myself resenting his concern, a little.

I sat down at the table with a groan. “You do sound old,” Becky teased.

“I am old,” I told her with feeling. “My body’s aching from spending the night in Milt’s truck. My back muscles are all tense.”

“You need a misogynist,” Kermit advised me.

I looked at him. “A misogynist,” I repeated woodenly.

“He’s right, a massage would do you good, Ruddy,” Claude told me, while Alan snickered in my ear.

“That’s not what a misogynist does,” I responded a bit too crisply. Everyone frowned.

“Well, what do you think they do?” Milt asked.

“A misogynist is someone who hates women,” I explained.

They glanced at each other. Claude cleared his throat. 

“Uh, but Ruddy, how could you make a living doing that?”

“Forget it.”

There was a small pile of gifts. Becky gave me a sweater. Claude presented me with a beer cooler. Milt gave me what looked like an alarm clock without the clock part.

“It makes noise to help you sleep,” he explained.

I looked at him blankly.

“See, it has a river flowing, and wind and rain, and birds. I figured for at night when the voices start talking.” “Thanks, Milt,” I responded, trying to sound sincere.

Jimmy Growe gave me a book. “Son of Sam,” I pronounced, reading the title.

“Yeah, I told the lady at the bookstore that you liked to read and that, like, I wanted a true story about a guy with madness, hears voices.”

“Jimmy, this is about David Berkowitz.” Becky was suffocating a giggle.

“Who?” Jimmy was leaning toward me, staring into my eyes as if trying to spot a piece of soot lodged there.

“Jimmy, please tell me you are not trying to see the person inside my head,” I said pleasantly.

Kermit coughed. “Hey, Jimmy, maybe I could go in with you on that. I mean, I didn’t know about the party in time to appropriate a gift.”

Becky beamed at Kermit over his munificence. Oh, this was not good—what was going on between the two of them?

You haven’t even thanked Jimmy,” Alan chided. I put a crooked smile on my face and told Jimmy the book was a perfect gift. Becky left me to tend bar, Kermit following her like a duck that’s been imprinted on its mother.

Claude nodded after them. “Who’s the guy?”

“Absolutely nobody,” I growled. For some reason I twisted to look at Bob the Bear, reacting in shock to his decapitation. How could no one else have noticed?

“Listen, I ... I won’t be needing your room, after all,” Claude told me, bursting to tell a secret.

“Oh? You and Wilma afflicted with a sudden rush of sanity?”

“No.” His mouth curled into a sly grin. “I’ve got somewhere else to stay tonight.”

I raised my head and saw Janelle watching us from across the room, her expression dark. “No,” I said flatly.

Claude blinked. “Huh?”

“Claude, Janelle is ... confused. She’s had a rough time of it lately.”

He snorted. “Haven’t we all.” 

“Claude, Wilma will kill you.”

That one made him think.

“What are you guys talking about?” Jimmy wanted to know.

A burst of laughter, strange yet familiar, caught my attention. I spun in amazement and caught sight of my sister standing at the end of the bar with her hand to her mouth. Becky laughing?

After a few minutes Wilma came in, stomping mud off her boots and sitting down at our table with a sigh. “Happy birthday, Ruddy. Hi, Jimmy. Honey, would you get me a vodka and soda? My feet are killing me.”

“Wilma!” Claude hissed. “What the hell are you doing? You’ll blow the whole deal!”

“Oh Claude, these are our friends,” Wilma declared dismissively. She brushed back her thick black hair and her gigantic earrings flashed like disco balls.

I got up to fetch her a drink. When I came back, the topic had shifted. “Ruddy, you have voices in your head?” Wilma asked, her eyes welling up with concern.

“It will all be in tomorrow’s paper,” I agreed heavily.

“What do the voices say?” Jimmy wanted to know.

“It’s not voices; it is just a single voice.”

“What does it say?” Jimmy asked insistently.

“It wants me to go to East Jordan and find a Realtor.”

“Oh Jesus, no,” Wilma breathed, making the sign of the cross.

“I don’t get it,” Jimmy confessed.

“Wilma, we can’t be seen together. I’m gonna go sit over ... over there. I’ll sit with Janelle,” Claude declared.

Wilma’s dark eyes flashed dangerously, but Claude was already standing up and turning away.

“A Realtor?” Jimmy repeated dubiously.

“Wilma, do not throw any furniture,” I warned her. 

Her eyes turned and settled on me.

“He wouldn’t, would he, Ruddy?” she asked plaintively. “I mean, we’re not really separated, it’s just for the slander clause.” I couldn’t meet her gaze.

“Hey, can I talk to the voice?” Jimmy wanted to know.

“That son of a bitch.” Wilma stood up with a crash, silencing the bar. Over across the room Claude was sitting at the table with Janelle, attempting to look perfectly innocent while her hand stroked the inside of his thigh in plain view of everyone in the room. “Son of a bitch!” Wilma cried.

She stomped from the bar, slamming the door behind her with such force that the headless bear rocked a little in his stand.

Janelle didn’t even blink; she was regarding me with an arched expression. Was that what this was about? Me?

There’s something not right about Claude and Janelle,” Alan, a voice in my head—a goddamn voice in my head—murmured.

“Ruddy?” Jimmy persisted. “Can I talk to the guy in your head?”

I felt the world start to sink on me then, a heavy blanket of unhappiness. At the end of the bar Becky was paying Kermit rapt attention. Was she really so desperate? Claude and Janelle were building heat like two sticks rubbing together, and Jimmy wanted to have a personal consultation with Alan Lottner, The Man Who Was Never There.

I stood up and stalked over to the jukebox. I felt Becky’s eyes on me and knew how well she was reading my mood as I hunched over the dusty glass and tried to find something recorded before everything had gone sour in my life. I fed in some coins and punched some buttons, then turned and surveyed the sparse crowd. “Jimmy!”

He was at my side like an obedient dog. There might not be a lot of light behind his movie star-quality eyes, but he was a good friend, loyal as they come. He helped me shove some empty tables away from the jukebox, then grunted with me as we wrestled Bob the Bear deeper into his corner of the room.

“Hey, his head is gone. How long has he been like that?” Jimmy asked.

“It doesn’t matter. I want you to go ask Janelle to dance,” I commanded him.

He blinked. “Janelle?”

“Go get her. Becky! Come here and dance.”

“Oh no,” she said, flipping her rag like a horse’s tail. “No way, Ruddy.”

But she didn’t run as I came after her, and once I had snagged her wrist she gave no pretense of struggling. Claude’s mouth sagged open a little as Jimmy easily lifted Janelle out of their conversation about foreplay or whatever, bringing her out onto the small dance area exactly as I’d instructed.

At the next song Kermit came out and took Becky away from me, so I stood under Bob the Decapitated Bear and watched approvingly as Jimmy did another turn with Janelle. Wilma walked in at that moment—I knew she’d come back, we’d played out similar scenes before—and it saved Claude’s miserable little life that he was sulking by himself at Janelle’s table. The tension left her when I grabbed Janelle and Jimmy, caught up in it, dragged Wilma out for a turn.

I bought a round of drinks for everyone who was dancing, which motivated the entire room to get out there for the next song. The noise brought in people from the street and somehow we achieved critical mass then, the point where the place becomes one big, uncontainable party. I had to go behind the bar to help Becky, and she no longer had any time for Kermit.

It was the first time in a long time that I had to force people out the door at closing. I left Becky counting money and headed home, my boots crunching the ice.

“Hey, Alan,” I said tentatively. 

Yeah?

“You were awfully quiet tonight.”

I know. Asleep for most of it.

I stopped. “Really? With all that racket?”

It’s strange, but when I go to sleep I can’t hear or feel anything. It’s the deepest kind of sleep you can imagine, like I’ve gone somewhere else.

“Heaven?” I suggested.

I don’t know.

Or maybe, I reflected, he didn’t sleep at all. Maybe when he went away it was whatever had spun loose in my mind gaining a little traction and realizing there was no Alan Lottner.

Jake gave me a wounded expression when I whistled for him to come out for a quick walk—he thought we’d agreed I had no right to interrupt his sleep. “Jake, you’re supposed to like walks. It’s what dogs live for,” I advised him. His look indicated I had no idea what I was talking about. He did his business with quick dispatch and then pointedly turned and headed right back home. By the time I got to the front door he was sitting there watching me with an impatient expression.

“All you did is nap all day, right? And now you want to sleep all night,” I accused. I said it gently, though, and stroked his velvety ears once we were indoors and comfortable. “Okay, sleepy dog,” I said. “You store your energy.”

Becky, God love her, must have snuck over and given me an extra little birthday present by picking up my house, because when I awoke the next morning all the beer bottles were out in the trash and the dishes had been done. “Place looks great,” I grunted, stretching out my muscles.

Much better,” Alan agreed from within.

I left alone the implication that Alan would prefer I wasn’t such a slob. “Man, I’m getting old. Just a couple of hours dancing last night and I ache all over.” I showered and went to the closet, pulling on a pair of jeans. I loaded a rake into my Ford pickup, cajoled Jake into getting into the front seat with me, and then stopped at the florist. The spring bouquet was already on the counter.

“Thanks, Ruddy. See you first Sunday in June,” the woman told me.

Who are the flowers for?” Alan wanted to know. I didn’t reply because I wasn’t sure how to answer.

The sun was hiding behind some dark gray clouds, but it didn’t look like rain. I headed north, fiddling with the radio. Jake sat in the passenger seat, blandly watching the scenery, clearly feeling the view was better from his blanket in the living room.

When was the last time you gave your dog a bath?” Alan sniffed at me.

“You smell wonderful, Jake. Don’t listen to him.” Jake seemed unoffended.

Where are we going?

“Suttons Bay.”

Where?

“It’s a little community out on Leelanau Peninsula. Kinda empty this time of year. Real pretty, though.”

I know what it is. I mean, why? Are we after another car?

“No.”

What’s with the flowers? Got a woman up there?

“Why don’t you go back to sleep,” I suggested. Jake thought I was talking to him and circled three times in his seat and closed his eyes.

I steered along the bay. The ice had moved out but the water looked black with cold, and the lone boat I saw chugging along with lines hanging off the stern was manned by two guys looking huddled and unhappy. In the summer, Suttons Bay is a bright, active place with people from boats milling around buying artwork. This time of year, the second day of May, with six inches of slush melting everywhere, the place looked gray and deserted.

The dirt road was muddy. I stopped and opened an iron gate. “We’re in a graveyard,” Alan pronounced.

The place was deserted. I winced as Jake lifted his leg on a gravestone.

Underneath the melting snow the ground looked dead. The yellow stems from last summer’s grass stood up as I scrubbed at the gravesite with my rake, but I saw no green yet. The flowers I placed in front of the headstone made a bright splash of color.

Who is Lisa Marie Walker?” Alan asked, reading the grave marker. “Would you hold your eyes still for a second?

I did, but I was gazing at a stand of trees, remembering the first time I had been here. I heard Alan grunt in frustration; he wanted to read the headstone.

So who is she? An old girlfriend or something?

“Be quiet for a minute, Alan,” I murmured. I took a deep breath, lowered my head, and prayed for the soul of Lisa Marie Walker.

You!

I turned, startled. A young woman in a wool coat stood just inside the iron gate, her face twisted in anger. “You!” she barked again, advancing on me with her finger pointed like a pistol. “I know who you are.”

My shoulders slumped. “Uh ...,” I started to say.

“Lisa was my cousin. How dare you come here?”

I spread my hands. “I heard that the rest of her family moved to California. So I thought, with no one here to take care ...”

She was in front of me now, a woman in her thirties. Her face was white, pale except for two burning spots on her cheeks. “We don’t want you to do anything! We don’t want you here. Haven’t you done enough? Do you know what it would do to her parents if they knew it was you who’s been leaving the flowers? This is a small town—didn’t you think someone would notice that the first Sunday of the month somebody was always out here tending the grave?”

“I guess I didn’t, no,” I admitted quietly. Jake’s eyes were on me, sadly taking in my discomfort.

“When I heard about it, I knew it had to be you. I drove up Friday from Flint.” Some of the anger seemed to be fading from her, now that she was face-to-face with me. “What in God’s name could you be thinking?”

My throat was tight and I found myself unable to answer. I looked away from her glare, shrugging lamely. “I just thought someone should ... ” I trailed off.

“Maybe someone should. But not you. Never you.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t come back here again, understand? Please, you’ve caused us enough pain.”

“Yes, I understand. I won’t come back.”

I let her stare at me, let her examine my face. “You’re not what I expected,” she finally said.

“Shall I ... shall I leave the flowers I brought today?” I asked faintly.

“No. Yes, yes, what does it matter—okay.” She started to turn away, then faced me again. “Look, I know you’re trying to be ... decent. But you can’t be. Not you, do you understand me?”

After she drove away I pressed a hand to my face and sighed. Alan, mercifully, was silent, and he remained that way even as I began walking numbly among the tombstones, reading the names of people long dead. The cemetery had been here since the 1880s, and some of the graves were worn down by the wind and the rain, fading away like the memories of the people for whom they stood in silent monument.

Lisa Marie Walker. Cheerleader, a pretty blonde with a white smile. Her high school announced her name at commencement even though she died the day after Thanksgiving of her senior year.

Looks like a fresh grave, over there,” Alan noted, searching for a safe subject. I wandered over to where muddy tracks and wilted flowers surrounded a gray headstone, Jake following at my heels. This woman, unlike Lisa Marie, had lived a long, full life until she died three weeks before.

Oh, my God!” Alan cried.

“What?” I answered, startled. “Do you know her?” 

My God, my God!” Alan shrieked.

“Alan, what is it? What’s going on?”

Look at the date, the date.

I looked at the dates. “What’s the date today?” Alan demanded.

“The date? May second.”

The year. What year is it?

When I told him he literally howled, so loud I gritted my teeth. “Hey!” I shouted.

Ruddy, my God, my God. I thought I just died, but I didn’t. It’s been eight years!

I stood blinking in the cemetery, trying to make sense of what he was telling me.

Eight years,” Alan repeated quietly. “Oh, my God.


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