Bumping Gums - episode 01

He lay prone with one foot under the table, spread out like a hit-and-run victim, staring at the far wall of his apartment. The lines of sunlight looked like tire tracks across his face and neck. Jeremiah was a tall, thin man with a bony beak of a nose—a caricature of an English Jew. I didn’t need to check his pulse to know that he was dead.

I had come to Jeremiah’s apartment at seven thirty that morning like I did every Sunday. We liked to bring in the Sabbath with tobacco and backgammon. I knocked with my cane, eyes turned down at the paper, and looked up to find the door ajar.

Morning skid through the blinds and came to an uncertain stop. The sunlight lay there, twitching in the breeze, drawing attention to the open window. His room was furnished to accommodate solitude and arthritis. A large television dominated the space, locked in binary orbit with a well-worn recliner. The only other furnishing offered up was a table for one, with chairs for two. One of the chairs was pristine, guestless aside from my weekly visits. The other held an ass mark distinct enough to ID the owner. A fourteen point match. The dead man’s butt print might have been useful if his dead thumb wasn’t in the room. Or if his name wasn’t embossed on a plaque on the door.

The combination of my Sunday suit, porkpie hat, and uninvited entrance flooded me with memory like water raising a ship in a lock. I was back in the Hotel Panama on one of a thousand domestic calls I had investigated while on the payroll of some jealous husband or blackmailed father. It was 1934, my spine was straight, there was pomade in my hair and a cigarette between my lips. I dragged a match across the abrasive strip of its box when the prone body of my dead friend dropped me suddenly into the present. I was pulled violently from my own flashback, surprised to find the lit cigarette in my mouth. I rushed to the kitchen to put it out in the sink.

Most of the residents of the Shaken Leaf were fed by the staff, either in their beds, in front of their TVs, or in the dining hall, depending on their mobility. Kitchen cupboards remained notoriously bare. Just Melba toast, hard candy, and in Jeremiah’s case, booze. I reached for the good bourbon at the back. The bottle and I sat at the table, inches away from my friend’s stiffening body.

The red wax that had once sealed the bottle looked like cartoon blood dripping down its neck. Somehow it completed the gruesome scene, making Jeremiah’s death real for the first time. I filled a tumbler and looked at the large red button.

Jeremiah was reaching for the red button, mid fall or dive. A better friend would have pushed it as soon as he walked into the room, but I just sat there. In the old days, back when I walked upright and carried a revolver, I picked up the habit of looking around before getting ushered out by the authorities. But I also sat there in the indulgence of another habit: whiskey. The nurses didn’t like it when I drank in the morning and they would come running once I pushed that red button. So I shared a moment with my late friend Jeremiah, contemplating his mortality and expediting mine.

Perhaps it was a desperate bid to glean something constructive from my alcoholism, or maybe I just wanted it to be there. For whatever reason, I saw something out of place. In the foyer leading to the door there was a black smudge on the wall near the red button. I stood, and as I moved towards the clue, some of the window light betrayed two lines of shadow running from Jeremiah’s body to the smudge on the wall, and then from the wall to the door. They were ruts in the carpet made by a set of small wheels. In another context, this obscure evidence might have required a cognitive leap by some master sleuth. I, however, had spent the last three years refusing to use a walker, so that was the first thing that came to mind. I turned around, ended the short life of my drink and hit the red button on my way back to the bottle. Someone had been here when Jeremiah died.

The work of my youth never really allowed me to feel a man among men. I was not in the workforce, nor was I a public servant. Being a private investigator had left me feeling ‘other than,’ like I was employed to bleed the life from the city in aortal spurts. Sometimes it was slow and mundane, other times I would see people at their lowest, and together we would watch as all of the good spilled from things. Back then I lived in a one room apartment, saving most of my income for a dingy office whose highlights included an ashtray and a filing cabinet. The view from my desk in those old days centered on a door. It was a hefty wood number with a pebbled glass window set in it. The window featured most of the letters it took to spell my name and a couple of others that denoted my profession. I maintained a lively business of following cheating husbands and buying off extortionists. From time to time, a well-dressed broad would brighten up my workweek, as was the case today.

Glory met me in the Shaken Leaf’s little cafĂ©, just off the lobby. She was dressed in an outfit that had been the height of fashion in our time, but today it only had the effect of making her more grandmotherly. Glory, in her powder-pink pillbox hat, would have been right at home on the red carpet. But that was a long time ago, and fashion wasn’t the only thing that had changed in those many years. Her face–while keeping the bone structure of her lost looks–had seen some time pass. She sighed and the pink shoulder pads of her coat gave way, their ends falling towards the center of the earth like coffins with one geriatric pallbearer.

“They said it was a clogged ventricle, but I know he died of a broken heart. Now the damn staff won’t tell me anything else because I’m not his next of kin.” She said this last part while doing a kind of twitchy jazz-hands thing and wiggling her head from side to side, moving straight from that mocking gesture to a wide eyed pout, she said “I need your help. I just can’t sleep at night without knowing what really happened to him. You can do that for me right?” She might have winked but, if so, it was indistinguishable from a facial tick.

“Ma’am, you know I’m retired right?” I made a sweeping gesture that drew our attention to the lobby of our shared retirement home. She went on, glazing over my question, feigning senility or self-importance.

“Naturally, I have plenty of money,” she said. “You will be well compensated.”

“I don’t do this kind of thing anymore. Shit, I didn’t like doing it back when I did need the money,” I said.

“I just want to know if he was being faithful to me. There must be something I can give you.” She tried that off-putting wink again. It made me shake my head involuntarily. “That little tramp Esmeralda would have ridden him like a wheelchair if I had just given her the chance.” She went on, saying this last part while pulling a fifth of bourbon from her huge purse. The bottle was wrapped in a brown paper bag, presumably to shield it from the sedimentary layers of butterscotch, napkin wrapped toast, and coupons that had ensconced it.

“Esmeralda? Are you talking about Easy? I’ve seen her around, doesn’t she use a walker?” I asked.

“Oh yes, a name that fits if there ever was one. She uses one of those older models with four wheels.” Glory’s tone was thick with malice, and came across all the darker as she spoke about an old lady’s medical equipment. “Why? Does it matter?”

“No” I lied. “I was only wondering if she was able-bodied enough to pose a real threat to your relationship.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a relationship,” she smiled. “He was just using me for my car.”

It was time to go talk to Easy. Well, actually it was 3:30, which gave me just enough time to change and have a drink before dinner. I would talk to Easy tomorrow.

I walked back to my room, bottle tucked inside my jacket. I struggled to index the facts. This much was clear: somebody was standing by the red button in Jeremiah’s room, watching as he died.

Casey Milone

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