By: Fred Miller
Like kelp in a gentle neap tide wave, his hair floated about, his head bobbing as if engaged in a silly Halloween game. His outstretched arms looked prepared to receive unseen friends from the depths below. No way to tell how long he’d been there, no way to know if it even mattered now.
He’d appeared not a month ago and had been seen about just days before. And whispers about town had it that someone had been alert to his movements since the day he’d arrived.
The techs were expected shortly with tapes and cameras and gaffe and gurney. And soon they’d know, the coroner and the examiner first. But why? That was the question.
* * * * *
“Settle down now, Bella. Long trip ahead of us, but we’ll be there by dark, that’s a promise.”
“Let’s see now: apartment emptied, savings account closed, full tank of gas, maps, snacks…guess we’re ready. Here…here’s a dog treat just for you, sweetheart.”
* * * * *
“Gone over the new residents, Chief, something here you oughta see.”
“What’s that, Evelyn?”
“New resident in Oak Grove Apartments. Name’s Samuel Maxwell.”
“Found a Sammy Maxwell on the California registry of convicted sex offenders, that’s what.”
“Let me see that. Hmm, only been here two weeks. How’d you identify him so fast?”
“Ellie over at the water department gives me a list of new residents who’ve put down deposits. I check ’em all, Chief.” She beamed, her flushed cheeks in contrast with her starched uniform.
“You interview him?”
“You’ve matched photos?”
“Well not yet.”
“Evelyn, you’re reaching. Got to be a slew of Samuel Maxwells in California.”
“But he comes from upstate. So does the perp. And besides, Chief, this is a college town. Shouldn’t we check it out?”
“Sure, Evelyn. I’ll check it out before long. Thanks for the report, nice work.” He sighed.
Her trousers made a swishing sound as she passed the new hire recently approved by the town council. Officer Davis had made a point to keep his eyes on his computer during the exchange between the Chief and the clerk whose duties included a meter maid route on sunny afternoons.
* * * * *
“Who could that be at this hour, Bella, too late for solicitors? Probably a neighbor welcoming us.”
“Why yes, officer, is something wrong?”
The policeman pretended to scan a clipboard. “Just routine questions, Maxwell.”
“You refusing to answer my questions?”
“Why no, I—”
“Just answer the questions. When did you arrive in Clear View?”
“Must have been, um, Monday before last. Yes., the first of the month. I—”
“Why are you here, Maxwell?”
“My late wife, she grew up here, officer…”
“Yes, Officer Davis. She wanted her ashes spread here…on the campus, you see, where she—”
“When did you plan to do this?”
“Spread the ashes as you say.”
“Oh, Bella and I did that first thing, officer.”
“My dog. She’s in the other room, kind of shy around strangers.”
“You know it’s a violation of the California Code to spread remains wherever you like.”
“Why no, I didn’t know—”
“I ought to run you in right now, Maxwell, but I’m gonna give you a break.”
“Right. Just pack your things and be out of Clear View, pronto.”
“But…well, Bella and I thought we might stay here. We love the parks and the slower pace. You see, I just retired and—”
“Not gonna happen, Maxwell. You’re outta here, you got that?”
“Be out of Clear View by the end of the week, Maxwell. Don’t make me have to come back and cuff you.”
“Well, I…” The old man’s words drifted toward the back of the officer’s campaign hat disappearing into the apartment hallway.
* * * * *
Evelyn considered herself an independent, well-organized professional with little time for gossip, but ensuring the wellbeing of the citizens of Clear View was a mandate, a foundation block in the career she was building. And she’d share anything with anyone to protect the people she served.
She admired the eagerness of Officer Davis, the new hire, and she thought the two of them would make a great team on the streets once the council could approve another deputy position. Her star was rising, she thought as she stared at the DMV photo she’d just pulled from the fax machine.
* * * * *
“Let’s see, Bella, mac-and-cheese—check; milk, butter, and eggs—check; salt, OJ…and, oh yes, we need dog treats. Wonder where they are?”
“Excuse me, sir. Could you direct us to pet foods?”
An aproned fellow with a pencil behind his ear inspected him from shoes to hat. The clerk’s eyes narrowed and he pointed toward an aisle.
“Folks not very friendly around here, Bella. You’d think they’d welcome new shoppers.”
The woman at the register checked each item with a systematic rhythm that reminded him of his first job on an assembly line in a box factory. Nothing at all like the forty-year career he’d had as a bookkeeper. Mildred always said he could have advanced, but he liked the routine, the exactness of the job.
“Oh, I’m sorry….must have been day dreaming.”
He pulled a small coin purse from his coat pocket and counted out exact change. “There,” he said, placing the money in the open hand. “And thank you,” he said to the clerk who focused on the coins in the register slots.
“Can’t bring pets in here,” she said, never looking up.
“Oh, sorry. Didn’t know.”
Her eyes rose to another customer who’d just arrived behind him.
“Good morning, Mrs. Oliver,” the clerk said with a smile.
Don’t know why Mildred wanted us to move here. Doubt if she’d recognize the place, so unfriendly here.
“We’ll try another grocery next time, Bella,” he said. A police cruiser passed them several times on their walk back to the apartment. Not much activity to keep them busy, I suppose.
Montovani—one of Mildred’s favorites. He listened as he checked off items from the grocery sack. The three of them had spent many pleasant evenings together listening to music from his extensive collection.
“Oh, my, we forgot bread and hot dogs, Bella.”
Determined to complete his earlier task, he emptied a can of dog food into her bowl and slipped out the door. She’ll be fine. Won’t be gone long.
Odd, he thought, spotting a police car parked across the street as he turned up the block toward a small corner store he’d seen earlier.
When he returned, the apartment door was ajar. He knew he’d locked it, he was sure. He’d never forget something like that.
“Bella? Bella?” No response.
Frantic, he raced out toward the street shouting her name. The police car was gone. Where are they when you need them?
“Here, Bella, come girl…here Bella.” And out of the bushes she scooted into his arms. From windows nearby a few neighbors stared at the teary-eyed little man clutching the small dog.
* * * * *
Saturday in the park. A must, he thought. Everywhere children frolicked on swings and slides, some tossing balls or Frisbees about. When he and Bella had finished their walk, he sat on a bench in the shade eyeing the little ones at play.
“Oh, you startled me, officer. I—”
“Didn’t I tell you to pack up and leave?”
“Yes, but I—”
“No buts, Maxwell. We want you out of here. And you know you can’t be in parks where children are present. Get moving.”
“Get moving or I’ll run in you right now.”
The old man stood, the dog in his arms. His knees buckled.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
Visibly shaken the old man shuffled down the lane toward the edge of the park. He couldn’t imagine what was happening, or why. Other than his private memorial service for Mildred beside the campus lake, he’d no clue what laws he may have broken.
Where could they go? No one was waiting for them where he’d come from. Mildred and Bella were his life outside the office. Perhaps this was just a bad dream. Yes, that’s what it was, just a bad dream.
* * * * *
Bella ate her supper while Samuel Maxwell admired the covers on his albums. Earlier, he’d thought of cooking something special for tonight, but his heart wasn’t in it now. Maybe a spot of tea with a little music. With the dog in his lap, he closed his eyes and dreamed of better times.
Startled by the sound of knocking at the door, he rubbed his eyes as Bella disappeared into the other room. The emphatic rapping echoed throughout the apartment.
With the new chain across the door, he peered into the empty hallway. The night air was still. He closed the door and looked at his watch. After ten. Must have realized they had the wrong apartment.
“Time for bed, sweetheart. Come out from under the bed, Bella. Your pillow’s right here.”
* * * * *
His eyes opened. He could hear pounding on the living room door. The luminous dial on the table read 3:05 AM.
He grabbed a robe and shuffled to the door and eased it open, keeping the chain securely fastened. He could see the night bugs wheeling about the light in the open hallway. And he could hear the gentle chirping of crickets. But he could see no one.
He’d given up on sleep.
At the kitchen table, with a magnifying glass he eyed the clarity of the carmines, the indigoes, and the mint greens in the stamp collection he’d assembled over almost a half century. Rare stamps, imposing and ageless, made his heart leap with joy each time he examined them.
But Morpheus soon took over and he was carried back to her infectious laughter, her warm loving hands, their walks together, heads nearly touching.
His eyes opened to paws scratching his leg.
“Oh Bella, I must have fallen asleep in the chair. Oh, yes, I know, time for your morning constitutional and breakfast.”
He watched her romp across the dew-laden grass and smiled. And he waved to the boy on the bike throwing papers. The boy waved back.
“See, Bella, everyone here is not rude. This is going to be a better day, girl. You’ll see.”
After a light lunch, he looked down at the dog. “What do you say we take a little nap and then a walk in the park?” Her eyes bright, her tail in motion, she jumped to his side as he heard a knock at the door. He bit his lip and wondered if he should even go. But then, he heard a female voice in the hallway calling his name.
“Why hello, Ms. Masten,” he said to the landlady.
“Mr. Maxwell,” she said and nodded. She had a notebook in her hand and pencil resting on the paper.
“Mr. Maxwell, when do you anticipate vacating the apartment?”
“Vacating? But why?”
“There have been complaints; I thought you knew.”
“Why, no….” a look of anguish appeared on his face.
“I don’t want to belabor this, Mr. Maxwell, but you cannot stay here.”
“I think you know why. Saturday’s the last day of the month, so it’d be best if you’re out by Friday so maintenance can clean up. There’s a waiting list, you know.”
“But I don’t see—”
“Mr. Maxwell. We can do this the easy way or, if you like, we can have law enforcement evict you. Please don’t be difficult.”
He was speechless. But her look was determined.
“Um, okay, by Friday.”
“Fine. Please leave a forwarding address in the apartment and we’ll return your deposit if there’s no damage to the unit.”
She nodded, turned, and walked out.
For most of the day he sat in his favorite chair rubbing Bella’s ears and gazing out the window. The gentle tick-tock of the mantel clock he’d been given at retirement filled the silence in the room.
Once the sun had set he placed the dog bowl on the floor and watched Bella eat with her usual vigor. When she’d finished, he attached her collar and the two of them stepped out into the night. He glanced at the bank of mail boxes on the wall, but did not bother to retrieve the day’s mail. In his slot lay an official envelope from the city police department and two circulars of upcoming weekend sales at local stores
* * * * *
The next morning two students found him floating in the campus lake, the body calm and relaxed, a posture one might expect of the newly retired. And a little dog sat whimpering by the water’s edge…waiting.
* * * * *
[South Carolina author Fred Miller has nearly twenty stories on-line and in print since 2010. These include Dew On The Kudzu, Muscadine Lines, Oxford Town, Puckerbrush Review, Skive, Static Movement, Troubadour 21, The Cynic Online Magazine, Scarlett Rosebud, The Houston Literary Review, Front Porch Review, Eunoia Review, Kalaidoscope, Roar and Thunder (Australia), Writing Raw, and Connotation Press. He has recently completed his first novel.]