A Curious Case
I pull up to the house around one. It rained this morning, but lucky for me, it stopped just as I was leaving my apartment an hour ago. Ahead on the pavement, a dry spot, larger car-sized. Possibly a Cadillac?
"Shit, I must've missed him," I say out loud. I've gotten into the habit. It helps with my decision-making. And my anger.
"Ah, might as well have a look around." A bird bath. Overgrown. Would've been perfect after this morning's little shower. "What a cruel fucking joke!" I spit onto the greying asphalt.
The upkeep of the exterior is shoddy at best. Crumbling brick, peeling paint. Queer enough, the hedgerow skirting the façade is impeccably trimmed. Like a girl who's trying to impress you. With razor skills? "I shave my face everyday, honey," I say to no one. I rub my fingertips along my jaw line. Bristles. I am impressed.
"I'm gonna check around back," I say. "Who am I talking to?"
No one answers. They never do. I suppose it's better that way. I ate a whole half-gallon of black cherry ice cream once. It took me a week. I've never been prouder.
The tidy row of hedges continues against the side wall, at least the side I'm on. Windows are shuttered. I can't see in.
"Why didn't you just knock?"
Not me this time. I turn to my left to see a male, 6'1", Caucasian. Flower-print dress. Sunbonnet. Metal watering can in right hand.
"Oh, excuse me," I apologize. "I didn't see a car so I thought you might not be here so I thought I'd just check around back and see if you were there and now I see you are but I feel I may have interrupted you and in the first place I should've knocked." He never interjects, and I have to stew with my mishmash of subjects and predicates.
"What is your name?" he finally says.
I race through my mental Rolodex of aliases and decide on the most realistic-sounding option. "John Doe," I reply, smirking at my cunning.
"I'm Dr. Tyrone McLouvrengradstein. I would normally extend you the courtesy of a handshake, but as you can see, Mr. Doe, my right hand is currently occupied," he says, lifting the half-full watering can.
"I've shaken hands before. I know what it feels like." Dummy. Real class act.
"Act what? Do you want me to perform?"
Blast! I'm saying the last word of my thoughts out loud again.
I thought Dr. Scrimshaw had cured this.
The doctor looks at me quizzically. I pause. When he doesn't question me with "This?" I assume the quirk has stopped or he's being unnecessarily polite after I've just trespassed.
Damn it! When will it end? Ah, that's it. End is the keyword. End.
"So, please, Mr. Doe, will you be so informative as to tell me why you have trespassed?"
"As soon as you tell me why you're watering plants when it just stopped raining an hour ago." Great. Back on top.
"I must look positively ridiculous," he says. "I was collecting rainwater with this pitcher, not administering it."
"Oh," I say, feeling stupid. Although he does look ridiculous in the dress and bonnet combo. "Collecting it for what?" I probe.
"Would you like to come inside and I'll show you?" An invitation. Just what I needed without the painstaking ordeal of a warrant.
"Yes, I would."
"Don't hesitate to come into my back door," he says as he steals away around the corner. This could be a trap. He could be waiting on the other side, ready to bludgeon me with his watering can. Cautious, I grip my sidearm tightly.
"Are you coming?" he calls, sounding halfway around the house and not sneakily waiting to give me my deathblow. Clenching my sidearm, I quickly round the corner to see the doctor twenty feet away at the back door. With a sigh of relief, I release the tiny arm that protrudes from my ribcage. Having absorbed most of my brother in the womb, my sidearm is all that remains of him. Perhaps he is the no one I'm always talking to.
The door leads into a laundry room. I look for clues, but see none that interest me, only shredded bloody clothes, a driver's license, and keys to a Cadillac. I need a body. The laundry room opens into the kitchen, where the doctor leans against a countertop. On the tile floor, I notice a small placard: LAB. "What's lab?"
"It's a breed of dog." The doctor seems okay with my snooping, so I have a look around.
A door with a sign on it. The lettering matches the LAB. "Where's this door lead?"
"It's where I practice my speeches. There's a mini-auditorium and I've created a crowd entirely composed of wax figures of celebrities. Would you care to see? There's a spare seat at H6. I never anticipate a full house."
"No, thank you," I say, being nice. That actually sounds a little too weird for me.
To my right, a refrigerator. Freezer on bottom. Two postcards held up by googly-eye magnets. One is titled Yellowstone at Night over matte black. I chuckle. The other is from Myrtle Beach and depicts several men in neon-colored thongs. "Have a good time in Myrtle Beach?" I ask over my shoulder.
"Never been," replies the doctor.
"You stinking liar!" I yell, pointing to the butts.
"That postcard was sent to me. Do you often purchase postcards for yourself?"
"No," I lie. I always opt to buy postcards of the places I've traveled. My photography skills have never been that amazing, at least one of my three thumbs always finding its way into the frame.
"That postcard was sent to me by a man named Jonathan Kreplark."
Bingo! "Dr. McLouvrengradstein, I'm a private investigator. This is my card," I say, offering one from my alligator-skin case. I watch the doctor struggle to read it, as everyone does. "Hold it up to the light," I suggest with a smile.
The words appear. "Invisible ink," I boast.
"Cute trick," he says, handing it back.
"I'm shocked at your refusal," I say, pocketing the card and case, secretly counting my blessings, as I have to make more and I'm running low on lemon juice.
"I'm shocked your name is Walter Ditmas and not John Doe."
"You had me fooled," says the doctor genuinely.
"It's quite alright. But I also must say I haven't been entirely honest with you," he plays skillfully.
"Oh, really?" I egg on.
Gesturing behind me, he says, "Behind that door does not lie an audience of waxen stars of the stage and screen. It's just my basement."
"I figured as much. That seemed a little odd to me."
"I know. You told me."
How much have I been saying?
"Less than you think," he says.
"I just said that?" I demand.
"You did. But aside from your comments outside and just now, nothing else."
"Whew," I say.
"You just said that."
"I know." I'm getting testy. End. "Doctor, Jonathan Kreplark has been missing for two weeks. Do you have any idea of his whereabouts?"
"I wish I could help you, Mr. Ditmas, but that postcard was our last correspondence, and that was easily a month ago. You can check the cancellation date on the back."
"That won't be necessary," I say, immediately regretting my decision. How to recover? "May I see your hands?" I can tell so much about a person just by looking at their hands. Not anywhere on the level of palmistry, but type of work, hygienic habits, how many fingers they have.
"But of course," he says, proffering them.
Some left-handed writing required, washes after peeing, eleven. Damn. "Thank you. I'll be off," I say, defeated.
"It's an absolute shame you came all this way for nothing. Would you like to see my boudoir?"
Boudoir. Ladies dressing room. The photos. Karen was saving herself for marriage. She handed me a perfume-scented envelope the night before our wedding. "Don't open this until tomorrow morning," she whispered. I honored her request, and broke the seal over my morning granola. Karen nude on a bed. I had literally never seen such sexy curves. Ten photos, different poses, each one more suggestive. But who took them? I flipped one over to find a backprinting. Fred Biffman's Boudoir Photography. Fred Biffman laid his eyes upon Karen's naked body before I did. I waited until the reception to do it. Inserting the photos into the Power Point slideshow was easy; explaining that I had said, "I due," so therefore the marriage was void, was not. God, I hope he didn't hear any of that. End. "I would love to."
I follow the man and his swaying watering can up a spiral staircase. Noticing he's not wearing underwear, I avert my eyes to a rather strange-looking chandelier.
We enter the eighteenth door on our right. As suspected, a ladies dressing room. Even one of those folding dividers that I've only seen in the talkies. "Buffalo," I say, having never entirely understood the meaning of the word.
"Thank you. But behind this curtain is something even more buffalo."
Through with his games, I order, "Just tell me what it is."
"It's a true mirror. When you view your reflection in a normal mirror, it is reversed. This mirror does not reverse the image, and shows you how others regard you. Fancy a look?"
"No," I refuse, expecting some cruel parlor trick where I'd see the skinless, bleeding demon that resides within me.
"Why not? You're quite the handsome fellow."
Fearing he's coming onto me, I ask the question that's been on my mind. "Have you ever made love to a man?"
"No," he says, "but I have fucked a man."
To borrow a phrase from the French-Canadian, "Touché."
"Parlez-vous français?" he asks.
"Non, je parle canadien-français." I respond. "But..."
"That was before, of course," he explains.
"I noticed you were a eunuch on the stairs."
"Not just the stairs," he jokes.
We share a good rib-tickling laugh. I feel like I am halfway into my fifth drink at a comedy club, too sloshed to remember I only had to order two. Why am I here?
"The rainwater," he says. "You did that thing again."
End. "Yes, the rainwater," I echo.
"This way." There are two star-shaped doors on the wall. He takes the second and I follow him into darkness.
The stench is unbearable. I hear the door shut behind me. Another door opens and closes. I try the knobs. Locked. A spotlight shines down in the center of the room. A claw-foot bathtub containing a decaying corpse covered in cat fur. But where is that awful smell coming from?
A loudspeaker clicks on. "Walter Ditmas, P.I., your case is closed. Jonathan Kreplark is in the basin before you. I'm using the rainwater to dissolve his body."
I can barely hear his words. What is that fucking smell?
"Years of pollution have caused the rainwater here to go from a normal pH of 5.6 to a more acidic 4.2."
"That's only the acidity of tomato juice!" I blurt hurriedly, trying not to swallow any more of the putrid air.
"Very good," says the doctor, surprised by my chemistry knowledge.
They did call me Litmus Ditmas in high school.
"Litmus Ditmas, eh?"
"Shit, I'm doing it again."
"No, I already knew that. And if you haven't figured it out by now, there is another red fruit more acidic than that."
"You sick fucking scoundrel!" A strobe light flashes, illuminating the corners of the room in a macabre dance. Cherries.
"You felt you had bested your allergy when you ate that ice cream. But you should've read the list of ingredients more carefully. Artificial cherry flavor. You are locked in this room. The only way to survive is to eat the cherries or the deceased flesh of Jonathan Kreplark."
"Curses. Curses on you and your mother's grave!" I scream.
"You can tell her yourself. Her bones are at the bottom of that tub."
I vomit whatever's left of my lunch. Looks like half a burrito and a Daffy Duck Pez dispenser. I know I've been beaten. Grabbing a fistful of the wretched fruits, I shove them into my mouth, pits, stems, and all. As I go into anaphylactic shock, my sidearm sticks up its puny middle finger in a final act of defiance, and goes limp.
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