Dorothy’s Wake

N.S. Simko
41 min readSep 5, 2022

a ‘short’ story feat. ‘Thom Pope’

Photo Courtesy of Author

I am lying in a motel bed ten miles southwest of Northfield, off route 12A, in a small town by the name of Patchwork; awaking from an eighteen-hour layabout off the cusp of rolling, for which I feed off the drippings of acid. And in my thwarted command, in the bedroom well, I see a light brighten the blinds of the window, forcing a wave of shadows back at me. Who’d be leaving the motel at… what time is it? With a sweep of the slum, I see sectioned sequences crawling along the floor. It’s the carpet, I assure myself, though I take my steps lightly, moving like a water-bug sinking in the ooze, while I hop along it. Looking further, I think keenly, ‘Where are the numbers?’ They cannot be seen. There was a clock clamped into the nightstand the night previous or the day before, from what I recall, but what I discount is the notion that I hid it somewhere. Unless it startled me with its hypnotizing waves; that sinister red riding ebb and flow into black matter. No surprise, now that I’ve rationalized the risk. I toddle about swinging my head lower as I try to raise it higher, and safely brace myself against the dresser. With my numb hand, I judge the distance between my eyes and the drawers and with that passion for accuracy I open each one from bottom to top. I never thought to look in the drawers. Contents equal to the good book and a blue pinafore dress left behind from some unknown visitor. Whomever she is, she wasn’t here while I was. I’ve been alone in this room for the past five days. So perhaps she died here and all that remains is her beloved pinafore. I can’t afford to deduce the origin of the pinafore girl; I had gotten up for a specific reason, which was… deduce the time of day stressing your suspicion of the light from out the window.

And as God would have it, a knock rattles the door. I clamber with speed to the window, knowing full well you must spot the package courier before they escape. He’s tall and unimposing, youthful in his appearance, yet his hair tells of wisdom. Sticking out of his Vermont university ball cap are stark black clumps of hair with dots of white; as if his hair has grayed in circular patterns along his head. He is wearing a black waistcoat over a space blue corduroy pant (better dressed than me) and his profile resembles an Englishman leaving a meeting with a spy ring hard-wiring information to Stalin. I’ll remember that face forever. Trust no one, Jim. Although my vice precedes me in my individual choice of trust, I’d be able to find someone in there worth talking to. So, I open the door with a twisted knob, step into the motel alley and shout, “What time is it?!” The lights of a seventy-two LUV pickup, parked horizontally across three spaces at the end of the lot, glares across my eyes as they scan along the motel in exit. I watch the truck leave, unable to make out its plates, though it won’t be difficult in a town like this to spot a blue pickup with a low hanging muffler. They’re gone, so be it. At my feet is a manila folder with my name written on it in black felt marker, ‘Thom Pope’. As I retrieve it, a neighbor across the motel courtyard opens their door to shout, “it’s two in the morning!” I thank them while they slam their door and I slam mine as a friendly rebuttal.

What have we got here? There is a letter and thirty crisp one-hundred-dollar bills neatly aligned in the folder. I am inclined to read the letter despite its words slithering in double vision. From what I can identify, Judith Haley has gone missing in refuge from the divorce proceedings brought on by her husband, Hickory Haley. The letter gives Haley’s address, and I expect to meet the courier come daylight. I pocket the money thinking of what I can spend it on; pay off the motel for another week and acquire tabs from whoever's selling. Sixteen should suffice for the ensuing case. “A wife gone missing. What could that entail?” I think to myself as I plummet into the bed, holding the letter tight in my hands. Either Judith has a majority share in the family finances or is owed one; her love for Hickory goes without regard and she’d rather disappear in denial than accept her marriage as a failure. If she’s dead, there’ll be less of her to track and if she’s hidden well, there’ll be even less. How exciting! A pint of matrimonial blood has spilled from this union and I must perform the transfusion! With the enthusiasm of Victor, I shall infuse life back into this beast, the fire of which will brighten even the thickest fog.

I set the letter aside while my eyes slope calling to me with their hefty drawl, ‘calla yelaw tacksee, six this marnin’. I dismiss it as being general knowledge. My internal clock will wail when the morning comes; my trusty pal, that keen awareness. But I can’t help but fall into the night, dreaming of salacious violence, the escape of man to conquer the weak, distant illusions of television appearances, walking through a shopping mall with no direction, making love to a woman from long ago, driving off a cliff with the cast of an early seventies sitcom, the simulation of death with its eerie bliss, monologues in defiance of authority, the school days playing full contact hockey on concrete, meeting with a man who flicks his lighter like this, a Palestinian nationalist, the troublesome sensation of waking up, etc. Sweet the rain’s fall, sunlit from heaven. It’s a thunderous haul for a morning call. The sky is black in anger. What happened in the course of four hours to justify this grotesque dawn? The powers that be are haunting the living. That’s some business I’d rather not partake in and bless my soul, our journeys do not cross. They have their targets and I have mine.

There are three tabs remaining for the day, fifteen cigarettes. I have seven hours of foresight to unscramble. The address given is to an apartment likely to be fifteen minutes in town. The taxi takes five minutes to get here. Negotiating with the driver and locating the apartment room makes an additional three minutes. I have a spare seven to speak to Hickory before the illustrations of life are designed by my eyes. Bottoms up! It’s best to take them now, wouldn’t want to carry ’em around in the storm. I make the call while lighting a cigarette and ask the operator if they know where I can find ‘lengthily special doses’. They laugh at me with such a force it crackles the landline’s audio, and they transfer me to call waiting for the local taxi service. A dragging croak of a voice speaking with a draw of breath answers, “…Hello?” I request a yellow cab to the Patchwork motel to which he responds, “We’ll have… car number…. two… of two… sent to your… location. You’re our second customer today.” His ‘enthusiasm’ is an inspiring start to the day. I thank him and he reciprocates by coughing into the phone before disengaging. The phone slips from my hand as I check my appearance in the mirror. My hair is unkempt, receding into a widow’s peak, pointing to my black rim glasses. The loss of which would render me futile. The clothes are subpar; I could do better by changing except I feel this bond with what I’ve worn for the lost week, a gray vertically striped dress shirt, dark brown blazer with elbow patches, and black slacks one size too small. I’ll let it be, save for the sparse general hygiene; smelling sweeter than a cherry pie with a V shaved out. It’s a matter of manners. I’d appear disheveled with an aroma alluring the meek, portraying an idyll commoner. They won’t tell me what I need to hear unless I’m remotely comforting.

After refueling on coffee, I make a second cup to go, carrying my mug into the parking lot and walking to a bench at roadside. The neighbor from last night is standing outside their door holding a mug identical to mine. I have no inkling as to her profession as she is publicly displaying her night gown. If it were any more translucent, I’d say a trucker’d murder her. Patchwork feels as though it doesn’t attract that kind of behavior. She might be the motel’s owner, living on the grounds with her father, who we never see. I could ask, but what painful relations would follow? The impetus of conversation luring us in with diminishing returns; an interest I don’t have and she doesn’t have, discarded for the game of politeness. Think about it, she doesn’t care, I can cower away in a humble ignorance! With my chin nestled in my collarbone, I adhere to anonymous dealings until I hear, to the chagrin of my deductions, the girl speaking incoherently. Her tone of voice is alarming simply because I know she’s talking to me. Off the sip of my cup, I look over my shoulder to hear her scolding call, “what gives you the right to shout at night?”

“I needed to know the time for work,” manages its way out of my throat.

“Do you know what time it is now?” She asks under the guise of curiosity.

“Somewhere around six… in the morning,” I answer quizzically. She doesn’t confirm choosing discipline my management of time, telling me I’ve been rotting for a week. They say interest starts with the first word spoken, but she spotted me the day I checked in. Does she know who I am? She seems to want to, asking, “What are you doing in Patchwork?”

I had a moment, wondering to myself, ‘what am I doing here?’ Losing the ignition of conversation, clawing at a comprehensive understanding of my own social output. So, when I stutter, “s-s-seeing what work I can find,” I can tell you I am concealing the truth through reticent defiance. And from her cold silence, I surmise she’s on to that. She drinks from her mug and I do as she does, eventually parting ways without substance to interaction. I stand at the roadside bench, glaring back to see her watching me. With those slumberous eyes masked by dark agony, I could see she is as I. That is why it’s best to stay apart, for I can’t be in communion with myself. There’d be far too much to idolize. Far too much to scathe.

I avert to the street, squinting at the dreadful shine coming off the pooling rain. Sickening weather for casework, this is, makes the hours long with ominous extensions of friendship. But what strange drifters I may meet down these brick roads tethered by culture’s pleasures and the undergrowth sticking its tongue at normalcy. I expect a rash denial of my presence from this town’s troublesome tide once it unveils its inherent gloom. Since the day I arrived, I’ve felt this way, hence the five days spent in space searching for joy; the most of which I derived from the name Patchwork. But there is much to discover in this small town, the bells of St. Mary’s I hear they are calling, wouldn’t want to spoil them with intrusive ramblings swaying my bias towards pessimism. As I think this, a yellow cab bustles down the brick road, halting ten feet from where I am, underneath the roadside sign for a taxi stop. I decide to shout vaguely reassuring phrases at the driver, gesturing for a friendly pickup and relax myself by realizing I called him. The handle to the backseat sticks causing me to set my mug on the roof and use both hands to open the door. Once I get in, the driver twists around his seat to mention the sticky handle and how he’d have preferred that I sit in the front. I apologize, staying where I am, and make polite by asking about the origins of the brick road. He turns to the steering wheel, ignoring me, and asks if I’m going to the town limits. I tell him I’m not and he insists I should. When I ask him why I should go to the town limits, he ignores me and asks for my destination, which I give him with a swift whimper. As the engine goes on, I light a cigarette without asking and notice the driver watching me in the rear-view mirror. I’m about to ask if I can smoke when he slithers back around to query, “Are you a party devil?” I didn’t know what he meant, but I didn’t have to as he went on to further explain, “the type of person who’ll play tricks on the inebriated. Not as if you would move the clock on a morphine-induced cancer patient, but as if you would expose people to oddities they wouldn’t otherwise experience. And the more intoxicated, the more fun there is.” There are a few tricks I’ve played that would fit that criteria, though I don’t identify with their vapid cruelty, becoming peace adhering to my behavior while fantasies scatter my morals. I tell him as much and he looks bewildered, staring at me like he’s waiting for a different answer. There was nothing for me to say and he must have felt likewise, putting the taxi in drive and starting on his way. Curiously, he did not turn on the taxi meter and instead of telling him, I worry about having not. We drive in a modicum of silence through downtown markets regulating produce and trinkets, clothes for our backs and services outside the depths of common capacity. The sidewalks here are rendered to the hordes who make this town feel more than small. They brush passed one another with their shopping dangling from limbs, their hands encumbered by fast food, enroute to transportation where I suspect they will go far from this land; far into a different life where they need not worry about the inner workings of Patchwork. Whereas I, a visitor motivated by outside business, am indeed a facsimile to the consumer, I differ in that what I seek is not on the surface; it cannot be purchased, used, and tossed away to be recycled into the newest product; it is the life embodiment of a dream, a melody stark in the air tickling consulate prizes who walk within an inch of admirable ecstasy.

The driver makes his last left turn, telling me the apartment is a few blocks ahead. He gestures towards multicolored row houses well off in the distance, partially hidden by urban trees and a flag pole waving freedom and unity. It dawns on me, in my slow perception of personal occupation, I could have spent this drive questioning the driver about inhabitants of his small town, considering he serves the public. Although he wasn’t receptive to my first question, he may not have heard me clearly, and he didn’t follow up on my behavior, which he sought an answer to. I glance to where his name badge should be and in its place is a sticker reading, ‘you can call me Al’. For the sake of information, I disregard my deduction of his disinterest and say, “Al? What do you know about the resident of this building?” He briefly looks at me in the rear-view mirror and with his eyes back on the road, he says, “It’s an apartment complex. You’ll have to be more specific.” I hadn’t thought of the others, but Al did it for me. I blurt out, “Hickory Haley,” with a desperation suitable for response and without hesitation, Al replies, “you’ll want a lawyer.”

“Why?” I ask as a reflection.

“He sues people for a living. Sued the town’s cab company cause they used a shade of yellow he had a patent for.”

“Is that why they can’t afford more than two cars?”

“No, that’s cause their hands were tied with the yellow cab company, who downsized them. Two cars for a lost town and I drive one.”

“Was Haley involved with the company prior to his lawsuit?”

“He hasn’t worked a day in his life. Successfully suing the town was his magnum opus in a long string of lawsuits. You may be the next.”

“I can only hope,” I say with an electric grin provoking offense in Al, whose manner of being slips into grimness.

He takes the taxi off the road, one block away from Haley’s, and waylays me about my attitude. “I am serious,” he says, turning to look me in the eye. “You’d better get a lawyer.” His face swells with dread, and I can recognize the legitimacy of his warning.

I thank him with concern not just for what may happen but what had, feeling as though Al is a key to Patchwork; an information booth on the politically divisive figures weaving webs through their personal taxi service. In fact, he is the service and from what I’ve been exposed to, I suspect he’ll be difficult to unlock. I’ll be seeing him again. I ask Al what I owe him and he looks at the meter, which reads zero. Reaching into my pocket, I take out a few crumpled hundreds and toss them into his tray, saying, “keep the change.” Al seems elated, poking a finger at the bills, authenticating them by touch. I take this opportunity to slip into the street, passing under a three-dimensional eyeball hung as a sign for the local optometrist. It watches me through the shade of a lid with long lashes; pupils black, void of character, looming in search of eye care to dole out. Walking a block while Al sits in wait, presumably watching me, I stand beneath the flagpole to admire it waving in reverence. Its dark blue fabric curls in embrace with the wind, clawing at the sky like radio waves beaming Basil Rathbone in elementary dialogue; reach for me when you make your rounds and drop me off where you see fit. I am on the cusp of climbing over the rainbow, suspecting its blanket warmth to grip me as its mechanical apparatus to heave-ho through rapture; its breadth is within, its release is imminent, God bless the land. I salute the flag and pivot with discipline, marching to the apartment complex where I clock, ‘Haley, №4,’ etched in a mail slot. Inside, there are two apartments per floor, making Haley’s the last door on the second. He has a doormat which reads, ‘Trick-or-Treaters Beware,’ an odd accompaniment to these May days. Must be a deterrent for solicitors. The door is adorned with a knocker resembling a Roman Legionarius; the knocker itself being the red bristled top, which I turn down three times. Soon after, a clatter of locks disengage, revealing to me my courier who invites me in with a flurry of enthusiasm.

“Welcome Mister Pope!” Haley bellows in a tireless soprano, as I’d suspect a cherub would sound relating gardening tips from hollow Earth. “Let me show you around,” he says as he walks me through a narrow hallway using a mug of coffee (where has mine gone?) like a pointer to showcase his achievements, the first of which is a display cabinet with three manuscripts elevated by risers.

“I purchased these under false pretenses,” he tells me, “‘The Fig of Caen’, ‘A Wife’s Lament’, and ‘Gourd’s Gallow’ stolen from a French aristocrat, the descendant of the author, Delfosse. I’d have given them back had she not taken me to court. They’re incomprehensible to me, they’re in French! But I figured they had value, and that’s why I own them. Rightfully mine.” Haley smiles, drinking from his mug before making an incidental remark, “she killed herself two weeks after the verdict,” and quickly points to the next piece. A mahogany armoire with drawers boldly stands against the wall under a poorly composed painting.

“The rapee’s chifforobe,” he loudly projects, sending a chill through my body, feeling as though someone may have overheard his candid comment. “This was registered as key evidence in a lawsuit between a husband and wife for a domestic disturbance. There’re still blood stains in the wood where he had used the door to batter her. He really should have gone to prison, but she just wanted his money… Unfortunately, it had to be dismissed from evidence since the husband was friends with the bailiff who tampered with the chifforobe. Despite that, I was able to get her full compensation. Jurors hate a man accused of anything. Whether they’re guilty or not, I can get the verdict in my favor.”

“Have you lost any cases?” I eagerly ask with a scampish lilt, an uncontrollable patois I’ve yet to fully conquer.

And as I expect offense at my eagerness, akin to Al’s, he responds an honest man, “it’s been a decade now,” he says locking his eyes on mine, “I lost every case I had when I was a defense attorney.”

“So, you turned to where the money is.”

“And where is that, Mister Pope?”

“In lawsuits, whether you’ve instigated them yourself or you’re representing a client.”

“Mostly myself with a portfolio of patents,” he chirps as a twinkle lights his face, “and I was about to show you my favorite.”

A short walk to the extent of the hall leads us into his office; abnormally small for a lucrative lawyer, there is room enough for a desk, a bookshelf, his chair, an adjacent chair, and a standing lamp; although his worth is well displayed on the walls with certificates of grandeur, legal documents pertaining to each of his cases, and the fabled color yellow. He smiles, looking at me as if I’mm meant to guess the meaning of a framed eight by ten wooden slab with yellow printed on it. He mugpoints, blurting out, “yellow two-forty,” and stares longingly at its seamless hue. A flatness I can only surmise as my vision begins to distort. It’s sprung sooner than expected (one too many cigarettes) for the tide has turned, the room is breathing, there is life beyond the traditional flesh and blood and I must save face. Otherwise, I risk alerting a perceptive creature who needs only a glance at my trickling grin to know I am not of a shared reality. His gaze shifts to me with an ensuing question I premeditate by conjuring Mozart’s ‘Symphony №40’; relaxation of the mind makes for an insightful escapade when examining a subject. I look him over in this instance, trying to discern what I can from his physical appearance; wedding ring is absent, impression at the base of the finger suggests fluctuation of weight, despite his thin build, attributed to stress (not from work, certainly not divorce proceedings); a faint stain covers the upper right quadrant of his finger. Ring removed one to two weeks ago. It wasn’t real gold. Had to be funded by the wife’s parents in a traditional ceremony; their faith in the relationship was questionable from the start; he was not aware of this until he removed the ring. Considering his materialism, he would have divorced her much sooner had he known. That’s to say, once he put on the ring (the day of his wedding), he never took it off; it’s care amounting to the least of his worries. So what worth was there for him in marrying Judith?

“You’ve been in Patchwork for some time now,” he says, “you must’ve heard of me and my yellow two-forty.”

“I can’t say I have,” I lie, particularly intrigued by his knowledge of my residence.

“It’s my magnum opus; a lawsuit which brought me to Patchwork, a town I’ve come to love since it’s provided me with more wealth than I could’ve ever imagined. The cab company here was using a shade of yellow I happened to have a patent for, which I inherited from my aunt. She was an artist, taught in the sixties, and created this shade during the eighties. She never made money from her work, but I feel she’d be pleased with her legacy.”

“What is it worth?”

He hesitates to answer, turning a smile into a smirk, saying, “I don’t divulge my finances with anyone other than my lawyer.”

“Convenient career path, wouldn’t you say?”

“I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” he says, taking to his throne, insisting I sit across from him in a burgundy upholstered lounge chair, which I can see myself enjoying a long draw from a cigarette in. I offer him one, rolling it along the desk, and he lets it lie, telling me he doesn’t smoke (so I’ll disregard the ashtray atop his bookshelf). Although he does oblige me to be comfortable in his home.

I inhale deeply, running my hand along my face in a distressed manner and engage him with an inquiry more pressing to me than his wife, “I’ve been in town for a week working on another case. Haven’t talked to anyone; Only left my hotel room this morning. How did you know I was here?”

“Your other case, it’s a missing woman, is it not?”

“Yes, and you were told about me, which means you must be my employer’s attorney.”

“I was going to be…”

“Until her flight when she heard he wanted a divorce.”

“Ezekiel told you his intentions?”

“Mr. Lahr wrote to me about a missing family member. He didn’t mention a divorce, but the connection is clear and if I find his wife, I’ll surely find yours, or vice versa.”

“What’ve you discovered so far?”

“Just what I told you, not that it’s a discovery. It’s simply what you’re thinking. Lahr’s missing person came to my knowledge a week ago, by mail, which leads me to believe she disappeared over two weeks ago, when you lost a potential client. You contacted me last night despite knowing my whereabouts for five days, telling me Judith disappeared that day and considering you do most of your work from home, she slipped out and never returned. By the sight of your ring finger, you broke the news to Judith around the same time Lahr’s wife disappeared. So, if they were cohorts, why did Judith wait two weeks to make her escape?”

“She did what she could to convince me I was making a mistake.”

“You don’t make mistakes and it took her two weeks to recognize what she already knew. Why are you divorcing her?” As soon as I ask, I interrupt myself with congenial apathy, “you don’t have to answer that, it’s not important.”

The office exhales, expanding its depth by a quarter of an inch, unveiling nothing more than its menial charm. It comes to my attention I’ve been in two rooms, a hallway and an office. Where is the rest of the apartment? This couldn’t be an office complex as the mail slots are attributed to individuals and not businesses. “I’d like to have a look at her belongings, if you could…” I awkwardly add, grasping at any semblance of a living space.

He implores me to do as much and moves to my right where a light press on the wall reveals his living room. “Right this way,” he says entering the passage, claiming a spot next to a fireplace which automatically ignites when he moves near it. “I expected to have more clients than I did when I installed that wall,” he says while I survey. “With the few I have, it’s good to keep them separate from my private life. I also save on the cost of renting an office space.” The room is triple the size of his office yet remains inundated by decorations. What grabs my immediate attention is a painting to my right, hanging slightly askew above his entertainment stand; its subject being Richard Nixon peering intently at the beholder.

I move closer, devoid of concern towards Haley’s lust for business, asking, “was your aunt a fan?” He hesitates to answer, visibly disturbed by the memories I’ve conjured with my question. His aunt didn’t paint this. She’s a source of pride in his heritage.

“No, and neither am I,” he remarks, stepping gingerly to the painting and straightening it. “Judith’s son painted this. He’s… he’s a lobbyist and the reason I switched parties. Naturally we’re estranged.”

“So, you keep his art on prominent display?”

“Judith insisted.”

“And where’s he?” I ask, fearing Nixon may, at any moment, climb from his enclosure and lecture me about minorities.

“Washington,” Haley says coarsely, “schmoozing the GOP, picking up the pieces where he can.” His disposition quickly lifts, abruptly cutting off conversation of his stepson, as he makes for a back room, saying, “most of Judith’s things are in the bedroom. She wasn’t much of a collector like I am. If it was up to her, she’d have sold everything I take pride in.”

I follow closely, moving through a short hallway with three doors, one on my left, one on my right (presumably the bath and wash respectively), and one straight ahead, the bedroom. It’s relatively conservative compared to the rest of the apartment, having bare walls and the standard accoutrements for sleep. However, there is a rather grand vanity mirror perched atop a dresser which has beauty products on caddy-cornered shelves and a single bottle of perfume, ‘Nascosta, an aroma of lavender’. I make for the mirror viewing myself in mechanical form, the background remaining static while the mirror itself shows me a collage of twinkling chromatic entropy.

Its hold lasts beyond comprehension until Haley awakens me by blurting out, “her makeup and jewelry along with her finances are in the dresser. If you’d like a look at her clothes, they’re in the closet by the door. Just slide the wall open. Now, I have some calls to make, so I’ll give you your privacy and when you’re finished, just come knock on the wall to the office.”

I mumble affirmation and watch him leave the room while I spray perfume close to my nose. The scent lost on me. My sense of smell has gone in the transition to a new room and may not return until I have a bout of sobriety. To counteract my inability for common sensibilities, I use a dark red handkerchief from my coat pocket and douse it in the perfume. Haley will surely wonder why I reek of his wife, which I can blow off as a necessity for investigation. Judith’s finances are without concern, payments of the last month primarily affected by insurance towards life and health; void of vehicular (she must not drive or she’s realized the exploitation of these services); and there are two expenses towards a business called ‘Bellbottom Zydeco’ for fifty-five and seventy-nine dollars, respectively; dated three days prior to her disappearance. Her makeup suggests a paler complexion, with concealers and foundations a shade lighter than white. In her closet, there are a variety of dresses and purses with matching shoes comprising a multitude of colors. Five hangers are bare and there are five imprints on the carpet where shoes should be; a size seven and a half. I rummage through her purses, none of which contain any contents; however, they belong to the same business recently expensed in her finances.

With that in mind, I close up shop and listen in on Haley’s phone call. He’s speaking rigidly, placing pressure on the recipient; complaining about a debt owed to him, money for a service outside the jurisdiction of a courtroom. Shortly after an upward inflection, he mentions me; I wasn’t his first choice. There’s a P.I. in town who accepted his money and didn’t provide results. I’d be the next to receive his complaints were I not to provide results. Which I plan to do. I try my best to rap at the wall, placing my knuckles against it and making a low scraping sound. He stops speaking and calls to me and all I can think to say is, “I’m ready.” He says he’ll call this person back and hangs up the phone, then lets me in to see him. I say there is nothing out of the ordinary, but I have a few ‘leads’ to go off of and would call him if anything suited his interest. He’s hard pressed to let me leave, wanting to talk about his achievements, yet I insist, knowing my peak is around the corner and I’d like to have a modicum of presentability when dealing with my clients. Haley gives me a photograph of Judith before he shows me to the door and I take to the streets.

The light, O’ the light, its heavenly rays open a world unseen by the naked eye; engulfing receptors, I shall one day burn out. This is prettier at dusk, with the twinkling sky conveying the light spectrum in all its glory. I can’t be so lucky with these flowing energies piercing my soul and telling me what to think. Which at this point I am becoming overwhelmed by and am in need of a lie down. There is a staircase next to the apartment’s entrance which leads down to a green door. I perch myself on the top step and, with my feet planted two steps lower, I lie back on the concrete and stare up at the waves in the sky. They crash into yellow, orange and cyan; colliding and swirling to form an awe-inspiring vortex which grabs me by the face like a vice grip on a doll’s head, supplying an insurmountable pressure that may pop at any moment. And as I arrive at the platform on the peak, the clouds from uptown saunter over and spit at me droplets of a distant lake. They fall like stars, streaking from an abysmal gloom which breathes in dance, figures of ghoulish form and medieval jest bobbing on a merry-go-round. I can see another world and I now know a little more about myself and a little more about the others, and I know Hickory is holding back and I know Judith isn’t far from home. I now know.

The sound of metal striking concrete screams in my ear, and before I can spot where it’s coming from, a quarter collides with my temple. A young woman stands near, covering her mouth in shock as she blurts out a sincere apology and offers me a dollar. I explain to her I was simply resting and in turn she questions why I’ve been resting there all day, as evidently, I was there when she left for work in the morning and now here I remain as she returns. Really, there’s no proper answer for this, so I tell her who I am and how I was thinking through a case. She seems delighted and relieved, yet a bit hesitant about my presence. I ask her where I might find the boutique ‘Bellbottom Zydeco’ and she tells me it’s one block down-street and one block up, on the corner. I thank her and start on my way until the youthful appearance of this woman stops me.

“Miss?” I say as I turn and she stops to acknowledge me, “you wouldn’t happen to know Judith Haley?”

“That lawyer’s wife?” She says.

“Yeah, this is their apartment here,” I reply.

“I’d know her if I saw her. She goes into that boutique often.”

“But you’ve never spoken to her?”

“Mm, no, can’t say I have.”

“You know what she sounds like?”

“She sounds kinda, oh I don’t know, average, like any other girl who goes in there. A bit nervous, though.”

“And you wouldn’t describe yourself that way?”

“I’m sorry?” She says, obviously perplexed by my sudden questioning of her.

“You shop there yourself, yet you wouldn’t be similar to the other regulars? I’m sorry, I’m a little woozy, but you know what I mean?”

“Yes, I do. There’s definitely a type who shop there.”

“Now if you think they’re all similar, average as you put it, how can you be sure it’s Judith you’ve seen and heard?”

“You know, you’re starting to weird me out, man. How do I even know you’re actually a detective?”

“Miss, I apologize if I seem rude or strange. I don’t mean to frighten you. It’s just I have these curiosities I need to pinpoint for the sake of a missing person.”

“Missing person? Is she missing?”

“Yes, and if you could answer my question, it would do a lot of good.”

“What was the question again?”

“You’re positive it was Judith Haley you saw and heard in the boutique?”

“Yes, I was behind her at the counter and they offered her a job. She told them her name. Judith Haley, like you said.”

“And when was this?”

“Yesterday.”

“Yesterday?! What time yesterday?”

“It was in the evening. I went in on my walk home from work.”

“Yesterday. Okay, thank you, Miss, you’ve been a tremendous help. I’m sorry for taking up your time, but you’ve been a tremendous help.”

I meander down-street at a hefty pace, almost zigzagging on the concrete and it suddenly strikes me. I have a photograph of Judith in my pocket. Nearly tripping over my feet as I pivot in the other direction, I sprint back toward the apartment, shouting Miss as loud as I can and when I catch up to her, she’s livid. She threatens to call the police as I rummage through my pockets in search of the photo and, after telling me she has mace, I produce it.

“Is this who you saw?” I say, desperately trying to fill my smoker’s lungs with air.

“That’s her,” she confirms. “Now would you leave me alone?!”

“You’ll never see me again,” I manage to mumble, and I take off back where I came, stopping stiff on the sidewalk with chest pains. I have to take it slow. Catch some breaths. This isn’t a time trial, Thom. You are on the tail of a missing person, who’s hiding in plain sight; no matter how far they travel, no matter what energy they dissolve into, they are a part of this world. I amble to the end of the block and look across the intersection to the boutique tucked between a warehouse and an empty lot contained by a chain-link fence. I step out into the street, not waiting for the light to change (must be okay if there’s no traffic), and I move to mid-block, looking in the store window from the other side of the street. Peculiar mannequins operate the space in gowns, appropriate for nuclear housewives, thrusting bottles of perfume at the sky like potions for heaven. They are packed tightly with the only scene beyond being from the piercing fluorescent lights. The door is a solid mahogany with no pane windows. Impenetrable. I’ll have to go inside.

When I enter, a bell attached to the hinge of the door rings and the woman at the counter takes immediate notice. She has blonde hair which looks artificial and a familiar face, and she’s wearing a… blue pinafore dress. What in God’s name does that dress have to do with anything?

“Welcome to Bellbottom Zydeco. How may I assist you?” She asks with a wide grin.

I bridge the gap, crossing a rug in the center of the sales floor, which thuds like metal under my dead weight, and as I approach the counter, I scan the merchandise and spot a display of more pinafore dresses. “Are those dresses popular around town?”

“I like to think so,” she replies. “May I have a size?”

“I’m sorry?”

“For someone special, their size.”

“Oh no, no…”

She turns her nose down, maintaining the smile plastered on her face since the moment I entered, and says, “For yourself?”

“I-already-have-one,” I speed through and say, “I’m actually looking for perfume. Do you have anything in lavender?”

She lowers her head further to the display case beneath her and says, “Nothing in lavender, my apologies,” as she looks into my wandering eyes.

The display has an array of bottles, squeeze balloons and pat models of vanilla and cherry. Designer makes mixing spices and scents unheard of in the working world. There are three rows, two of six and one of five, with a space in the leftmost nine. Right in the middle. There should be three rows of six. Something’s missing.

“What was the bottle in the middle there?” I say with a jagged point.

“That would be the lavender you’re after. Currently out of stock,” she says.

“Could I order another bottle?”

“I’m sorry. We’ve stopped doing business with the supplier. May I suggest the ‘Fleur Sur La Mer.’ It’s quite popular.”

She’s stopped business with the supplier, yet she said it’s ‘currently out of stock,’ which would suggest it’ll be in stock someday. Why would she use ‘currently’ when she knew it wouldn’t be? I mention I’m particular about what I want and she says she smelled that about me and apologizes for the inconvenience.

“Do you have a phonebook?”

“We don’t sell phonebooks,” she replies with a giggle.

“No, I mean, I-I need to make a phone call, but I don’t know the number.”

“Certainly… What’s the name?”

“If I could… the spelling’s different than usual and I’ll recognize it when I see it.”

She concedes uneasily and roots around the counter shelving for the phonebook, which she plops down on top. I take it in hand and flip to ‘L’, where after thirty-four names I find ‘Lahr, Ezekiel’: #555–0134. I hand over the phonebook and thank her and she offers her phone for the call, which I politely refuse, knowing there’s a payphone in the street. And when I’m halfway to the door with her pleasantries in tow, I rummage through my pockets in a desperate search for coins. Nothing but a wad of bills, the amount of which no sane person should carry on them. I unravel one unaware of its denomination and spin around and approach the counter where the uneasy lady gives me an uneasy glance.

“Changed your mind,” she says, the smile long gone.

“I think I will buy something,” I say, scouring the counter for merchandise sufficient for a quarter break. Incense sticks in a mason jar. Five for a dollar twenty. I take thirty-five and set them in front of her. Eight dollars and forty cents, and I offer the bill which, upon examination, is a one dollar note. Turning my back, flush in the face, I unhinge the wad from my hip and shuffle through singles and fifties and hundreds until I find a ten. Here you are and here I go, one dollar with two quarters and a dime. I tuck the incense sticks into the inner pocket of my jacket, thank her once again, and bolt for the door.

There’s a phone booth outside the warehouse unoccupied and long unused, which I cram myself into sideways. I yank the handset off the switch and feed the machine and plug in the number and notice the yellow pages sat atop the box. Of course, there’d be a book in the booth with a nice short chain. The phone rings three times and a gruff voice greets me.

“Mister Lahr? Ezekiel Lahr?” I ask, and he confirms and I explain who I am to much dismay.

“Where have you been?!” he barks into the line, “I expected you five days ago and today I get a call from my lawyer telling me he’s hired you! How is it he’s talked to you and this is the first time I get the courtesy?!”

“I have no excuses…”

“Damn right you don’t, so what do you have to say?!”

“Sir, I’ve made some headway in your case. All I need now is a simple favor.”

“Favor?! What in the hell kinda favor could you possibly need?! More money? I’m tempted to ask for mine back.”

“You can certainly sue if you feel the need,” I shouldn’t have said that.

“I will.”

“All I ask, Mister Lahr, is for receipts. You keep your receipts?”

“You’re asking for my finances?”

“No, I’m not interested in what you’re making and how you’re spending. I just have to make a connection. Do you keep receipts?”

“I do.”

“And your wife?”

“I do all the finances. I have hers as well.”

“We can do this over the phone. Could you find for me any recent receipts from the Bellbottom Zydeco boutique?”

“My God, that wretched place. She’d drag me in there and the smell was…”

“I’m sure it was awful. The receipts, sir.”

“Let me find ‘em,” he says and sets the handset down in a loud crash. After a remarkably audible shuffling of paper, he returns and says, “I’ve got one receipt here.”

“When was the purchase?”

“Uh… two weeks ago, this was.”

“What did she buy?”

“Just one item, it’s Nuh coz… noz coastuh… I’m not…”

“Nascosta, an aroma of lavender?”

“Yeah, some perfume bottle. It’s on her dresser.”

“Mister Lahr, that is all the more I need. You’ll hear from me again incredibly soon, I promise.”

“I’d better be.”

I lock the switch hook and jangle the coin return, not a cent, and awkwardly shuffle out of the booth onto the sidewalk, taking a sharp look at the boutique. The mannequins stare at me, twisting my stomach into a tripe pretzel and it spins my head into a sickening tumult. I should lie down here on the sidewalk, but I’ve got to reserve that temptation to once a day. There’s a restaurant across from the boutique, Modelio’s, which advertises their signature crullers on an embossed poster plastered on the exterior of their window. Ninety-nine cents per. From what I can see, the dining room, which makes up the front of the restaurant with the counter in the back and the kitchen behind it, is predominately clientless. A couple are being waited on and a single is biting into a cruller over a plate of nine more. I wait for a Buick to pass and step into the street, jogging to the entrance and I enter. A man best described as owl-esque shouts from across the room, calling me a party of one and I agree and he tells me to take a seat. Right by the window, a table for two with a view of the boutique. The owl man places a menu on the table and asks what I’d like to drink. I shift my weight to jab a hand into my pocket where I reveal the wad of cash I’ve been burdened with, and I unsheathe five hundred dollars. He’s clearly uncomfortable with my disgusting display, despite it being for his benefit.

“This is for you,” I say with the bills outright, “I need to stay here until the boutique closes, and for now, I’ll take a pitcher of water and a glass. I might eat something later on.”

“And who are you supposed to be?” he replies, taking the money, “Richie Rich?”

“I’m a detective.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, yes, I am.”

“You can’t be. Patchwork doesn’t have a police force. There hasn’t been a crime committed here in a hundred years.”

“Then it’s overdue.”

“What are you insinuating?”

“Nothing, no…” I choke back an insult and explain, “There’s a crime already occurring. It’s happening now. I’m a private investigator.”

“Yeah, where from?”

“All over, can’t claim a home.”

“Well, you see that it doesn’t come spilling into here. I’ve got crullers to bake.” He turns to move for the counter and I stop him in his tracks.

“Sorry, when does the boutique close?”

“We close at nine…”

“No, when do…”

“We close at nine and they close at ten. So, you won’t be in here to see it.”

“But you have to clean up afterwards and probably won’t leave until they close. Five hundred will surely cover me watching behind the scenes.”

“I’ll get you your pitcher,” he says and returns to the counter, where he informs one of his employees of what to serve me.

A glass turns to ten, a pitcher turns to coffee, and a coffee accompanies a cruller. A host of patrons come and go, the sun collides with the ground, night is upon us. The streets have gone barren as the glow from the boutique spills into the darkness, and I take solace in its energetic aura. Sleep is a whisper in the dark. A whisper most tempting. I take a moment to respect the staff at the restaurant toiling about with mops and rags, collecting the discharge of the day, and when they’ve finished, the owl man switches off the lights to the dining room. A single light illuminates the kitchen window and I’m sunk into the darkness to observe from the shadows. Not a peep. No one in, no one out. A paranoid glance to my left, counting the seconds before I’ll kicked out, shows the owl man divvying up the payments for his employees, and soon enough he’s approaching me.

“That’s all, ten o’clock,” he says, “we’re leaving. That means you too.”

“No one’s left the boutique.”

“Not my problem.”

“So, you’re going to throw me out?”

“Of course. What did you expect? They close at ten. It’s ten now. They’re probably cleaning just like we were. Another hour at most.”

I take the wad from my pocket and start unraveling bills to scoffs from a dejected owl.

“No, no, although I’d love to take your money, you’ve got to go.”

“I will,” I say, handing him a one-hundred-dollar bill, “but I’m taking this.” The knife from my table, peppered with crullers crumbs, which I wipe off with a napkin.

“Take it, fine with me, I want to get out of here,” he says, taking my plate and cup and setting them on the counter as he shouts, “Now get out!”

I hide the knife in my jacket and take to the street where I wait, just wait. An hour, two hours, three hours, pacing up and down the sidewalk all the while the light in the boutique stays on. I hear the roar of a service door, and after a minute, I see a box truck turn the corner and pass in front of the boutique, whereupon the light goes out. The roar sounds again with a crashing close and I sprint to the other side and peer between the mannequins. No one’s in there. In the enclosed lot next door there isn’t a car, and when I move to the alley in the back, there’s not one there either. I haven’t heard a door to the building open, and no one’s left. Back out front I take a second look and there’s not a light on anywhere, seems deserted, and although I suspect there’s got to still be someone inside, I try to jimmy the lock with my brand-new knife. With a few false starts and a wandering eye to keep guard, I get the door unlocked and gently set it ajar. There’s a distortion in the air. Distant muffled music plays somewhere inside; a somber jazz dance band melody whose familiar sounds ping around my head. It’s on the tip of my tongue as the lyric ‘remember me,’ echoes in the room. No dice. I pocket the knife and raise my hand to feel for the bell chain, carefully pulling it loose. Without a sound I enter, gingerly closing the door behind me and I move toward the counter, fixated on the entrance to the backroom, terrified someone may appear and catch me prowling. One soft step on the rug and a metallic thud rings through the room. I stop dead, flicking my eyes around the sales floor and when it settles, I feel warily relieved no one’s made themselves known.

With my shoe, I hook the rug and kick it overtop itself and underneath is a cellar door, five feet wide and ten feet long. From the gaps between the frame and the door emanates a faint light, and when I kneel closer, the music becomes clearer. It’s Al Bowlly. I’m dreading what I’ll find, but this is the job, and I take the circular pull in hand and lift the door until it locks in place. Down the shaft is a solid cement staircase, like the building was constructed to accommodate this room, and it leads to a red pattern carpet of flowers reaching into infinity. Step by step I move down, gliding my hand along the foundation wall and when I take to the landing, with what I see, I am stunned. There is a record player in the far right corner, six cots against the left wall with a gap between each three, and sat at a table in the middle of the room with individual plates of cake, are six women in blue pinafore dresses wearing blonde hair. They turn to stare at me, the ones further back leaning forward to catch a look, and though my instinct is to sprint back up those stairs, I stay where I stand, unable to move. The woman closest to me on the right says I shouldn’t be here.

“I know I shouldn’t be here,” I say, trembling with every word, gentle and slow, “but why shouldn’t I be?”

She stands from her chair, turning her body to me with a firm stance, and says, “We don’t want you here.”

“I don’t want to be here. But I need to be, at least I… suspect I need to. I’m looking for someone.”

“One of us?” says the woman closest to the left.

“I believe so.”

“Why would you be looking for one of us? No one’s looking for us. We aren’t wanted.”

I thought about what she said, and were it not for a momentary reflection, I’d have blurted out, ‘but you are.’ I genuinely felt they were wanted, and I thought, ‘who would isolate themselves in the basement of a boutique surrounded by like-minded people, indistinguishably presented without a unique identity?’ Who would feel so low about themselves?

“You chose to be here?” I reply.

“They’re giving us new lives,” says the woman furthest back on the left, drawing glares from the other women.

“Who are?” I ask her and her alone.

She sits back in the chair, looking like she’s already said too much, and the standing woman takes guard, blocking the view of the other women. She moves toward me, forbidding and robust, and says, “People like us… who have given more than they take in love and sympathy without a word of gratitude. Who get tossed in the street when deemed not agreeable.”

“You’re the divorcées.”

“Not anymore,” she says, turning her back and returning to her seat. “No, we aren’t seeing that finale.”

“I don’t think you are. I can see that you won’t.”

“You’re a Haley goon, aren’t you?”

“What makes you think that?”

“She’s gone. Worked her last day today, her and… Lahr, is that right? Top priority, both gone. You aren’t finding them here.”

“Where can I find them?”

“I’ve told you enough.”

“I’m not looking to report. I’ve accepted money from Mister Lahr and Mister Haley, but I’m not reporting back. This is something different, entirely different. I just need to see them, to conclude my work.”

“You’ve said all you have to say. Please… please leave.”

I look around the room, the record player running its needle on the repeating groove, the red walls finally catch my eye, and the cake in the center has a story to tell. Two pieces remain on the platter with a half circle and a ‘D’ written above a ‘C’ and a ‘K’. I take my first steps since I entered and move to the right to spot the three pieces on separate plates, one has half a circle written, another has what looks like a small upper case ‘J’ beneath a crook with an ‘O’ on it’s right, and the last has a half circle. On the left, I analyze the pieces while being told again to leave; two are all white icing, and one has an ‘L’. There are six pieces here, two on the platter, must be two missing. ‘Good Luck’. A celebration of their departing coworkers, freshly cut cake, minimal bites taken. No one in, no one out. Where did they go? I’m not exactly convinced Mrs. Haley and Mrs. Lahr aren’t in the room, yet I resolve to leave them in peace.

As I take for the door, I notice the scuffed carpet against the left wall in a three-foot-wide expanse. Leading up from the left side of the scuff, the red on the wall is lifted toward me. It’s paper. I look at the women and tell them I’ll be going and sprint with hands forward at the wall, and when I connect, I push through into a dark passageway. I continue sprinting through with what light breaks from the basement, and while being shouted at by the distraught stowaways, the narrow escape widens into an underground garage. There is a ramp center right up to street level with a service door, and there are parking spaces surrounding me, all occupied by box trucks. I make for the door of the garage feeling like my heart is going to give out, and when I look back at the passageway, I can see the backlit women moving closer like sentries of a ghoulish war. The door lifts half an inch when I pull and it crashes down, cutting my fingers on the rusted metal lip. On its right is a metal strip spanning its length and to its right is another strip spanning the frame, both having a hole drilled out and a padlock attached. It’s about mid height and despite the jack hammering of my heart, I throw my leg up and start pounding away at the lock. I continue kicking while they’re closing the gap until a final kick drops me to the cement floor. A deep breath of panic brings me up to my feet and I scramble for anything that may assist in my escape. Stored in a tube to the left of the door is a metal bar approximately five feet tall. I unsheathe it and slip it through the hole, leveraging it back so I can fit between it and the door. I force all my weight on it, doing standing pushups, frantically pressing my back into it. It’s giving way. The metal strip is bending and breaking and surely so is my spine. A pop echoes in the garage as I’m thrown backwards and the metal bar rolls down the ramp. I catch my footing, looking at the lock, and I lift it off the twisted metal. The women have stopped, standing motionless in the center of the garage as I pull the service door up to the ceiling. The door slams when it hits the top and starts back down as I step out and sprint into the night.

Ten blocks away, I’m ready to die. A yak is sitting on my chest. The lymph nodes under my arms are pin cushions with each strain of fabric pierced. My lungs are at full capacity and I need to inhale. Hell has frozen over and its excess heat has found a home in my body. It’s best I get on all fours and crawl into the gutter. Let it lie, son, it’s got yellow custard from its eye, can’t have much longer. I need a lie down. Once per day. It’s a short walk to the motel. There’s a barred fence I use as a walking assist, ambling down the sidewalk, and when I turn the block, I can see the motel across the street. Silent streets and lamp heats take me to my door where I search my pockets for the key and find only money, incense, cigarettes, a knife, and Judith’s photograph. Good Lord, I have to talk to someone else today. It’s tomorrow. Off to a bad start.

I stumble to the main office like a drunk with a rum IV, sober as the night is clear, and I ring the call bell. A tall thin man emerges from the backroom, sunken in the face holding a slice of bread, and he asks what I want. I explain and he’s defiant about handing over the spare key, more concerned about losing it than he is about my well-being. I assure him I left my key in the room and will have the spare back to him once I get in. He concedes and pulls the spare from the key hook, where I notice there are two recent no vacancies, rooms nineteen and thirty-nine. Handing me the key, I thank him and go to my room. I set the key atop the dresser, next to the other one, and I plummet like an ACME anvil onto the mattress. No more than a minute I’m back up, drawn to the dresser, where I open the bottom drawer. The pinafore dress. They didn’t die. It wasn’t beloved. It was a symbol of an impending escape. The last remnant of a person unwanted, who could be named, seen, who didn’t relate to the identity they kept for all their lives up to that point. Not offered a job, but a service. To be taken away from a lack of satisfaction. Judith’s here. In one of these rooms. Probably gone tomorrow… to some other city, to some other house or apartment, with another name and another face. I close the drawer and snatch the keys from the dresser and leave the room, moving up the alley, following the numbers to nineteen. There isn’t a soul abound and I lean in to knock, feeling emotionally wrecked, prepared to sob. Three times on the door and I wait. Three more and the curtain to the window slides aside. I can’t see in, but they can see out. I take Judith’s photo from my pocket and hold it in front of me as the door opens into the chain lock and a face fills the gap.

“Judith?” I ask.

“No,” she says abashedly.

“We met today,” I say, matching her with the photo.

“I don’t know you.”

“It’s okay… It’s okay. Hickory knows nothing,” I assure her and I delightfully ask, “You’re leaving for D.C. in the morning?”

She nods her head, teary-eyed.

“You have a safe trip,” I reply, handing her the photo of herself, and I turn away, walking to the end of the alley. In the office I give up my keys, “I’ve gotta get outta here,” I tell the man who says nothing. Then I ask if I can make a call from his telephone. The taxi service, they’ll send the night car. I wait under the taxi stop sign and after thirty minutes, a taxi bustles down the road, coming to an abrupt halt a foot in front of me. I go around to the other side and take the handle, which sticks when I pull. Night car and number two, one and the same. I use both hands eventually opening the door and when I get in, I see Al. He looks in the rear-view and says, “you should’ve got in the front.” I agree and tell him I’d like to go to the town limits. He abides with a smile.

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N.S. Simko

Poetry, prose, short stories, and experimentations. Whatever distracts me from working on my novel.