Bumping Gums - episode 02

Rose garden trellises slid by in the foreground, their crosshatched pattern breaking up the movement of three hunched gardeners kneeling a few yards in the distance. I walked laterally, circling the manicured courtyard as I tried to single out Easy from the group. The images of the elderly gardeners flipped through the gaps in the trellis like a zoetrope. They seemed to jump from frame to frame as they weeded, all animated and jerky.

As I came up on a gap in the maze of greenery and turned toward the center, all three of the trowel-armed horticulturists looked up. Two women and a man. Two vacant stares and one sharp enough to pop a child’s balloon. I approached and Easy started the process of getting up. Once there she was quite mobile with the help of her walker. The two of us pulled away from the turned earth they had been working and made our way to a nearby bench. I took a spot on the metal seat and Easy turned her walker around, transforming it into a stool.

“You’ll excuse me for not joining you, the bare metal is a little hard on my hip” she said, smiling.

“Of course” I grimaced back “wherever you’re the most comfortable.”

“This thing has a soft seat. And of course, a cup holder.” Easy pulled a large plastic cup from a holster on the side of her walker and took a pull from its oversized straw. “Are you thirsty dear?”


She put the straw back in her mouth, looking at me with arched eyebrows. I returned her stare. It was penetrating. There wasn’t any hesitation in her gaze. Easy looked at me because she was unabashedly curious. I felt seen. I did not enjoy it.

“What were you doing at Jeremiah’s last night?” I said, trying to wrestle back the thread of conversation.

“Who? What?” she said, feigning confusion.

“Easy, Don’t paint yourself into a corner. You were in his room. Why?”

“Oh now, that’s just crazy. How could you know something like that? Not that I was there.” She said.

“You’ve got some paint on your walker there.”

“That could be from anything,” she said, although it lacked the belligerent tone of the guilty. She had a casual air about her. Like she knew that I knew but, was just a little too proud to give it up yet.

“It’s paint from Jeremiah’s hallway. Your walker caught the wall as you were fleeing the scene.”

I reached out and scraped a couple paint flecks into my pill bottle. They were the same uncomfortable beige that coated Jeremiah’s apartment.

“You don’t have a lab to test that in.” She said as I put the pill bottle in my coat pocket.

“You don’t know that,” I replied. “We both know that it’s from his room. Why’d you kill him, Easy? Why’d you do it?”

“I was there, but he was dead when I arrived. Gave me a bit of a shock.”

“Only a bit? You seem pretty cavalier about it. How come you didn’t call for help if you found him dead?” I asked.

“I was standing there, with my hand on the red button, but it was clear that he was gone and if I had been the one to find him there would have been a lot of explaining to do. Gregory is a little more traditional than most of my partners and he would have suspected the worst if I was up in another man’s room at night.”

“Gregory is your boyfriend then?”

“He is.”

“So why were you there?” I finally asked.

“Well, it’s hard to explain but, I heard a couple of men talking about how they were going to beat him up if he kept sitting next to them at Bingo. Seemed crazy to me but, I figured I’d better say something just in case. I don’t know what the big deal was. It’s not like you can cheat by copying someone’s numbers. Who knows, it was probably nothing.”

“And you don’t think it’s significant now that he’s dead?”

“Didn’t he die of a heart attack?”

“He did. I guess you’re off the hook.”

“Well I should hope so.” Easy exclaimed.

“So just how well did you know Jeremiah?”

“Not as well as I’d have liked to.” Easy said, making it very clear what she was implying.

“So you two never …”

“Fucked?” The word fell with a punch, hitting a quiet moment in the rose garden and carrying further than the rest of our conversation. The other two gardeners tensed, they’re shoulders lifting slightly at the sound of the young word.

“Exactly.” I looked through her, determined to keep some composure. She had taken a sharp and deliberate turn, one designed to throw the interview off balance. A tack usually employed by the interviewer, not the interviewee. We played next-word-chicken for a moment more while a half smile grew across both of our lips.

“Not as green as you look.” She said and in that moment her exterior cracked open. Easy’s stock look, the bemused and innocent grandmother, changed into one of conviviality and shared experience.

“That move might work on your grandchildren I, however, am not horror stricken at the thought of you having sex.” I said.

“Well, that’s nice to hear. I suppose at this age I’ll take it as a complement. Not much of one, but it’s something. So what’s really going on dear? There must be some very good reason to bring you down to the garden at this time of day, and with the shakes no less.” She pointed her cup down at my hand. It rested on my cane and shook slightly. I hadn’t even noticed.

“Perhaps I’m just old. Did you consider that?” I said. I was well past the point of embarrassment where alcohol was concerned, I just didn’t like being read so effectively.

“I have no doubt that you are, dearie. Just like I have little doubt that you went to sleep with a bottle of bourbon on your bedside table.” She leaned in and inhaled deeply. “Been 46 years since I had a drink and I’ll be damned if I can’t still identify the region of distillation as it sweats out of a man.”

“Fair enough. I can tell when I’m out of my depth.” As I began to rise from the bench I asked her “married to an alcoholic cop were you?” I was pleased to see her surprised for the first time.

“For so long that I have dropped the”alcoholic" from his title, thinking that the description is redundant. How did you know?"

“I’ve never been so expertly handed in my life. You must have had years of practice dealing with assholes.” I started to move in the direction of the exit.

“Well, you just let me know if you’d like to be expertly handled again. I’ve only grown more talented with age, dear.”

“I bet you have, I bet you have.” I chuckled to myself. Then, before the next step I stopped and turned. “Oh, one last thing. Gregory, is he a resident here?”

“Oh heavens yes. Gregory’s right over there. Say hello Gregory!” She called out to the man tending the roses, one of the two people I pulled her from to begin this conversation. He looked up, wearing a red floral shirt, and waved blandly. “He’s kind of an idiot but, he can still drive so we spend our weekends together. It’s not exclusive.”

“So, nothing on the side with my friend then?” I asked.

“Like I said dear, I would have loved to. I even asked him outright once but, he said he had a thing going, and not an open thing like mine. I never pushed it after that, I like ‘em with a little fight for sure, but disinterested is not my cup of tea.”

I loped along, moving steadily back towards the main building of the Shaken Leaf and away from my surprising conversation with Easy. It was a lengthy walk back through the gardens, the day was bright and brisk and the whole place was coming to life with the aimless meandering of the elderly.

It’s a rare sight to see someone strolling along with purpose and direction in a place like this, but I was not alone. A hunched man in a long grey overcoat and a large straw hat shuffled along the cobbled path behind me, always succeeding me by a turn or a twist. I assumed it was a man, but it was hard to be sure from this distance and I couldn’t see his face.

I was being followed.

I rushed on, making my way out from the center of the garden along concentric pathways. My heart raced.

As a group of people ambling around a hedge obscured the view of my pursuer, I took the opportunity to duck into an alcove. I eased myself down onto the bench and waited. Sweat greased the handle of my cane. Tension built as the uncertain racket of my heartbeat grew louder in my ears.

Seconds piled onto seconds, building suspense at a glacial pace as they formed minutes. By the time I started looking at my watch, most of the adrenaline had worn off. My eyelids started to droop.

Then, in the very moment that I was about to doze off, I was pulled back into lucidity by a large straw hat rumbling under a stream of curses. I jumped back into wakefulness. It took all of my ware withal not to do it with an audible “Guffagh.”

My pursuer had stormed right by me, apparently in a state after losing my trail. I stood up, slowly, as that’s how I do it now.

The man in the straw hat walked out of the rose garden and paused at the fence by the bowling green. I tucked into a group of onlookers, standing so that they would interrupt his view should he look back. When he was on the move again, I threw my weight onto my cane and tailed him at a distance.

He walked quickly, putting some distance between us. I struggled to keep up as he moved along the length of the bowling green. Just before he reached the end, he stopped, like something had just occurred to him. I was totally exposed in my pursuit. Out on the open lawn there was nowhere to hide. He started to turn around. I panicked.

It turns out that what passes for a dive at my age feels like a house of cards collapsing under the weight of a sneeze. I don’t know what went through my head, most likely nothing, but as he turned I flung myself behind the nearest body. That body turned out to be a large staff member who was posted on the green in case someone fell and couldn’t get up. I think I made his week. I lay there peering around his practical tennis shoes, trying to get a glimpse of my subject’s face. Under that floppy straw hat he was wearing a medical mask that covered his nose and mouth. Only his time-worn eyes showed. At this distance they could have belonged to anyone. After registering a look of surprise, he turned from me and started to run. Well, he shuffled a little faster than before.

Glen, the giant of a man whose feet I lay crumpled at bent over, saying “Whoa there fella, you alright?”

“No! Stop that man!” I cried out, in a less dignified way than I would have liked.

“Really?” Glen’s voice was riddled with condescension. I had a moment to pull myself together as he lifted me gently upright.

“He has my coat. My pills are in there.” I said, adding a little chest grabbing motion to really sell the urgency.

“Oh Jesus! You hold tight here for a moment.” Glen turned, leaving me to stand on my own and called after the man in the straw hat. “Hey there Mr. I think you might have taken the wrong coat. Come here for a second and we’ll just sort it all out.” He flew toward the man in the straw hat, crossing the lawn in a few giant strides. Seeing the speed at which Glen moved, the man panicked.

“Whoa there Mr.” Glen said. “We need that coat, Bud’s pills are in there.”

In a moment of clarity that I actually found myself jealous of, the man in the straw hat pulled off the coat, revealing a red floral shirt underneath. He then flung it away from himself and stepped out of the waist-high gate that separated the bowling green from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the grounds.

“Well, that was odd,” Glen said. By the time he reached me with the coat, the man was gone. “Here you go Bud, do you need some help taking those pills? Some water maybe?”

I just stood there, regaining my balance. “No,” I said. My voice carried more frustration than it should have. “Thank you, I’ll just sit here for a moment and catch my breath.” I took the coat with me and sat on a bench at the edge of the bowling green. It was slung over my lap and after things had died down a little I started riffling through the pockets. There was nothing except a single scrap of paper. About three by five inches, it had a seemingly random series of numbers on it. They were split up into groups of five digits. It read like this.


27567 26628 15251 17101
42052 71425 52332 58693

I stared for a couple minutes, trying to make sense of it all. The waters surrounding this case seemed suddenly deep. I felt the rush of a strong current, something pulling me out to sea. I remembered a feeling like this once before, back in my straight-backed youth. I had taken a case in my mid-thirties that started out as a simple extortion racket, but ended up drifting right into a FBI investigation. Within days it was so far out of my depth that the big fish I was swimming with just left me behind, I was paid out and asked politely by the agents and my client to “fuck off.” I had been happy to have an out at the time, it had seemed like easy money. But that was long ago.

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