Bumping Gums - episode 03

Edith’s knife struck the plate sharply as she bisected a cherry tomato.

Ira adjusted his upper denture, dislodging a stray piece of lunch.

Jones examined a fresh mustard stain on his track suit.

I ladled a spoonful of soup into my mouth, judging each of their reactions in turn.

“So you believe her? Sounds like you were taken for a ride.” Jones said, scraping at the stain with his thumbnail.

“Sounds like she’s full of shit to me.” Edith said.

“Yeah, she’s full of shit.” Ira always felt the need to punctuate the end of other people’s sentences by repeating their thesis.

We sat in the Shaken Leaf dining hall. It was one of the days without table service and the place had a culinary school meets prison feel to it. A long cafeteria counter—weighed down by carb-heavy side dishes—hemmed in a large open kitchen. The kitchen was bright, stainless, and staffed by eager youths. A line of shuffling residents picked up trays, received moderate portions, and swiped a meal card before congealing in groups at the round tables of the dining hall. Like we were doing now.

“I don’t think she was lying. Or if she was, not about Jeramiah’s death. There’s something going on here though.” I passed the piece of paper I had pulled from my pursuers coat to Jones who took some time to look it over before passing it along to Edith.

“Means nothing to me,” Jones said into his sandwich.

“It’s written on the same kind of paper scrap that we leave for people to post things on the bulletin board. I think I cut up this stack myself.” She turned the numbered card over revealing a fraction of a poster that had been repurposed into four by six inch rectangles. “We just take stuff from the recycling bin out back and cut it up.”

Edith had been a housewife before coming to live here, but had clearly missed her calling. Upon arrival, she burrowed deep into the inner knitting circles that governed the Shaken Leaf and took root. Within weeks she had taken control of the bulletin board turned it into a coded system for placing personal ads, missed connections, and other casual encounter postings. By sitting at the center of the whole community’s active social scene, Edith had become a kingpin of sorts. She knew everyone’s business and was treated around the house like some kind of benevolent madam, which seemed to suit her fine. She passed the card over to Ira.

“No idea.” Ira said, barely looking at the card before giving it back to me.

“Want to take a look at it? I don’t think you even saw the side with the numbers.”

“Oh, I thought we we’re talking about the side with the pictures on it.” He took the card back and turned it over looking at the series of numbers written on it. “This could be anything. Lotto numbers, a one-time pad, anything really.”

“One-time pad?” I asked.

Ira refused to talk about it without a couple of drinks in him, but he had been some kind of player in the cold war. A scientist on loan to the government from the private sector, back when that was a thing that happened.

“It’s a key for sending coded messages between two people. It’s still the only truly perfect encryption around. But this could be anything, just looks like something from a long time ago. No one uses that kind of thing anymore, it’s all digital now. They’ve got no need for a good pen and paper encryption. Kids these days.” He shook his head “Anyway, this could be anything.”

Ira turned back to his food.

A thousand questions swam through my head, but before I could hook one of them, Jones said “You should take a look though Jeramiah’s stuff before they pack it up and take it off to Goodwill.” Jones had been a stevedore at the Port of New York his whole life. He started working at fifteen and never took a day off until he was put in here by his kids. He had come up during the golden age of shipping back when things regularly fell of the truck, making their way into welcome hands. There was little doubt that he was paying his way here with long-ago horded ill-gotten gains. In fact he still supplemented his income with contraband. Jones was the man you went to if you needed things that were too embarrassing to ask your kids for. Mostly just porn, a little weed, and Viagra. He made a fortune on the Viagra.

“His things are still here? Where?”

“He didn’t have any family to come pick them up, so they’ll be down in the storage area with Carl. It wouldn’t have taken them long to clean out his room, but they only do runs to get rid of unclaimed stuff once a month. It’s coming up tomorrow, you’ll need to get to it before Carl leaves work today.” We all knew that Jones had memorized the schedule of everything coming and going from the Shaken Leaf, from food deliveries to (apparently) trash disposal. Still, it was a little startling to hear him rattle it off.

“Why on earth do you know that?” I asked.

“Carl and I have a thing worked out. He lets me have a look through some of the good stuff before it leaves, I get high with him down in the boiler room sometimes.”

“Leaving aside for a moment the revelation that you’re getting high with the janitor, can’t you go take a look for me? You know, if you already have this arrangement?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you’re looking for. And besides, what am I? Your deputy? Do it yourself. And when you go down there, don’t bring up the weed thing and don’t try to bribe him yourself. It took me a long time to gain his trust and he won’t warm to you quickly.” Jones said.

“I have a rapport with the man, just not that kind. How do you think I should approach him?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You’re the one playing detective after all these years when you weren’t all that good at it to begin with.” He paused to smile at me. “You know, from what you’ve told me.”

“That’s a fair assessment.”

We sat in the boiler room, Carl and I, in some kind of chronological role reversal: Me, the naive high school student ditching class; Carl, the weary and overworked janitor humoring me. He had a thermos of coffee. I brought a bottle of rye, small enough to fit in my coat pocket. I had been wearing nothing but suits and hats for these last few days. It was a vain attempt to be taken seriously and I was running out of church clothes.

With the obligatory college football talk out of the way, we moved the conversation forward.

“Carl, do you still have Jeramiah’s stuff down here? I think something of mine got packed up with it when you folks cleaned out his room.”

“Well we do … but Bud, I can’t just let you rummage through his things. You’ll have to take it up with the office.”

I looked at Carl. He was young, probably in his early forties, and handsome enough–if you like a kind face. He wore a baggy blue coverall to work every day, making it hard to make out his body shape.

“Well, it’s not really the kind of thing I can talk to them about, if you know what I mean.” I said. Carl looked at me, he did not know what I mean.

“What are you talking about, Bud?”

“Look, I’ll level with you. It’s not mine so much as it was something one of his female callers left in his room. It was about eight inches long, shaped kind of like this.” I did my best to pantomime the shape of a cucumber.” Carl continued to look right through me, puzzled. “It took batteries—”

“Oh shit! What?” I think I saw actual waves of nausea take the poor man. He stood, walked a few paces away from me before doubling over and resting his hands on his knees. From a few feet away he went on. “Okay… so you’re telling me that somewhere in this old man’s belongings is a…”

“A vibrator.” I could see Carl’s body tense as I said it. “It’s pretty big, I think that Glory told me it was dark purple, or maybe she said black.” This rendered him silent. He actually walked out of view for little while before coming back to sit with me, the color had returned to his face.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re telling me that Jeramiah and that sweet lady Glory were, well, intimate with each other?”

“That’s a very polite way of putting it.” I said, gently.

“Had they… were they partners for a long time?”

“Not that long, a few months I think.”

“Well, I guess that it’s nice they found each other.”

“Ha! Yeah, after she found half of the other guys in here. Glory has pretty much gone thought this place in alphabetical order.” I said, trying to push Carl over the edge. It seemed to work. He sat there silent for another moment.

“Bud, I don’t think I want to know the answer to this, but is this kind of thing going on a lot here?”

“Carl, what would you do if you lived in a community of several hundred people, with male female ratio of two to one, and no risk of pregnancy? I mean lawn bowling is fun, but it will only eat up so much of the day.”

Carl, looked like the he was struggling immensely with this idea. He kept looking at me like I made lampshades from human skin.

“That is so… I mean, how does it even work? No, wait. Don’t tell me. I think I might be sick.”

“Wow, that’s really flattering Carl. You know that I live here right? You’re throwing up in your mouth at the thought of my weekends man.” He came up short as I said this, looking genuinely apologetic.

“Oh geeze, I’m really sorry Bud. I didn’t mean it like that, I just… It’s just a lot to take in.”

“Ah, you’re a fine young man. Don’t sweat it. Now, why don’t I sit here while you go through my friend’s stuff to find that toy?”

“Ummmm… Well, I wonder if it might just be best for you to look yourself. How about I show you the box of stuff and you just retrieve whatever it is that Glory seems to have misplaced. In fact, well what do you know, it’s just about time for me to head home anyway. You take your time, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He said all of this in a single breath, while grabbing all of his belongings and heading towards the door. As he was leaving he turned, tossing me the key. “Just lock up before you leave.”

“Okay, do you want me to leave this key with the front desk?”

“Um, no. You’re not really allowed down here on your own, or at all for that matter. Just leave it with Jones, we have a thing that we meet up for in the mornings. I’ll get it from him.”

The door closed behind Carl as he fled and I turned to the box containing my dead friend’s life.

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