THE LEFT SIDE OF my face hurt.
A woman named Roberta Dreemer, affectionately known to her few friends and many enemies as Bubbles, had filled the doorway of her rusting trailer in the mobile home park just across from the Pines Nursing Home seconds after I knocked. Bubbles Dreemer was a very big woman.
She had been easy to find. She had a phone and it was listed in the Sarasota phone directory. It seemed like a quick, easy job for Richard Tycinker, attorney-at-law in the firm of Tycinker, Oliver and Schwartz with offices on Palm Avenue who needed Big Bubbles’s testimony in an assault case.
I handed Bubbles the folded sheet. She looked at it for a beat and hit me. Then she slammed her door.
It was a Thursday. Still morning. I was sitting by myself in a booth at the back of the Crisp Dollar Bill, almost directly across from my office/home on Washington Street, better known as 301. I was doing my best to forget Bubbles Dreemer. I’m not good at forgetting. That is one reason I see Ann Horowitz, the shrink treating me for depression.
I had bicycled to the trailer park and back to save the cost of a car rental. From where I lived and worked I could bike or walk to almost anything I needed or wanted in Sarasota. Before I went into the Crisp Dollar Bill I had stopped at the Main Street Book Store, the largest remaindered bookstore in Florida, gone up to the third floor, and bought a two-videotape 1940 serial of The Shadow starring Victor Jory. It took six dollars of my fifty. I was using some of what was left on a beer and a Philly steak sandwich that, thanks to Bubbles, was a little painful to eat.
My name is Lew Fonesca. When people look at me, they see a five-foot-seven, thin, balding man, a little over forty years old with a distinctly Italian, distinctly sad face. That’s what I see when I look in the mirror, which I do my best to avoid.
I came to Florida five years ago from Chicago after my wife died in a hit-and-run accident on Lake Shore Drive. I was headed for Key West. My wife, whose name I’ve spoken only twice since she died, was a lawyer. I was an investigator in the office of the state’s attorney of Cook County. My specialty was finding people. I’m not a cop. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a private investigator. I’m not even an accountant.
My car had died in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen that I could see from the booth in which I was sitting at the Crisp Dollar Bill if I leaned to my right and looked through the amber window. Thirty feet from where my car died, there had been a “FOR LET” sign on the run-down two-floor office building at the back of the DQ parking lot. I had rented a small two-room office on the second floor, converted the small reception room into an underfurnished office and the equally small office behind it into the place I slept, read, watched television and videotapes, and thought about the past.
My goal in life was simple. To be left alone. To make enough to keep me in breakfast, burgers, videotapes, an occasional movie, and payments to my shrink.
Almost all my meals were eaten within a few hundred yards of where I lived, worked, and watched old movies on tape. There was Gwen’s Diner at the junction of 41 and 301 where a big photograph of young Elvis in white smiled out in black and white with a proud sign under it that said, “Elvis Presley ate here in 1959.” There was the DQ owned I by a sun-weathered man named Dave who spent most of his time alone in his small boat in the Gulf of Mexico. And there was the Crisp Dollar Bill where the bartender and I owner Billy Hopsman played an endless series of tapes and CDs he loved that seemed to have nothing in common. There was Mel Torme, Verdi operas, the Pointer Sisters, Linda Ronstadt, Ruben Blades, B. B. King, Blue Grass, Dinah Washington, Sinatra, and odd German stuff that sounded like Kurt Weill gone into a depression not far from my own. You never knew who you might hear from the I Bose speakers when you entered the Crisp Dollar Bill. Right now it was Joe Williams singing “Don’t Be Mad at I Me.” Billy had been a hippie, a cabdriver, and for a brief time a minor league catcher with a very minor league Detroit Tigers farm team. Best of all, Billy was not a talker. He wasn’t much of a listener either except for his large collection of tapes.
The door of the Crisp Dollar Bill opened and in walked Marvin Uliaks. Actually, you couldn’t call Marvin’s mode of transportation “walking.” It was much closer to a shuffle. In this case, a nervous shuffle.
Marvin had brought an unwelcome blast of sun behind him reminding me that there were hours to go before I could call it a day.
“Close the door,” Billy said automatically without looking up from the copy of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune laid out on the bar in front of him.
Marvin shifted the weight of the oversized book under his arm, pulled himself together, and closed the door. Then he squinted, blinked, and tried to adjust his eyes to the amber darkness.
Marvin’s nose was pushed to one side as if his face were permanently pressed against a store window. His large popping eyes made him look amazed at even the most inconsequential contact with other human beings. Marvin was short, had an unkempt mess of brown hair beginning to show gray at the temples, and was so thin that you wondered how well he could stand up against an evening breeze off the Gulf. I imagined Marvin in a hurricane, arms out, hair blowing as he went spinning in the air, a startled look on his face as he passed the same cow Dorothy had seen on her way to Oz.
Marvin had the kind of face that made people say, “He’ll never win a beauty contest.” As I was soon to discover, people were once again wrong. The great “they,” the ones we mean when we say “they say,” were often wrong but completely protected by being someone other than you and me.
Marvin’s eyes adjusted quickly and he headed straight for my booth. He dropped the huge book in front of me and sat facing me across the table. The pockets of his well-weathered denim jacket were as bulged out as his eyes. He folded his hands in front of him on the table and looked at me.
“Look at it,” Marvin said.
He was harmless and quiet, two levels below minimally bright. I pushed my Shadow videos aside and opened what was clearly an album of photographs and newspaper clippings. The first item was a newspaper clipping that said Marvin Uliaks, age three, had won the annual cutest child contest at the county fair in Ocala in 1957. The article, wiltingly Scotch-taped in the album like every other item, had a photograph of a smiling blond kid with curly hair wearing a sailor suit. The kid was pointing at the camera and beaming. Flanking the little boy were a thin, sober-looking man with a baby in his arms and a pretty brunette who was holding Marvin’s free hand. The woman wore a little hat and held her free hand up to shield out the sun. The man and woman were identified as the proud parents of Marvin.
“That’s me all right,” Marvin said, tapping a finger on the newspaper clipping. “My mother, my father, and my baby sister.
“My sister, Vera Lynn. She was named for a singer.”
“‘Till We Meet Again.’“ I said.
“Don’t know where, don’t know when,” Marvin sang. Vera Lynn, the British singer during World War II, was a favorite of my father’s who made it through the ware with all his organs and body parts except his right eye.
“Look at the next one,” Marvin said with excitement.
In the photograph, Marvin’s father was holding the little blond boy upside down by the ankles. The father had a little smile. The boy was grinning.
“Turn the album upside down,” Marvin said, turning the album. “See, now I look right side up and my father looks upside down.”
“You’re the right,” I said, turning the album around again.
“Keep looking, Mr. Fonseca. Keep looking,” he urged, turning the page.”
“Fonesca,r; I corrected.
“Yeah, oh, sorry. My name’s Uliaks.”
“I know.” I said, looking at several pages of photographs that meant nothing to me.
“I went to your office,” Marvin said. “You weren’t there. I went to Gwen’s. You weren’t there either. I went…”
“You found me,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, shaking his head once with pride.
“Why?” I reached for my beer.
“I want you to find Vera Lynn.”
“You want me to find your sister,” I said, putting the beer down. “I’m a process server. I find people to give them orders to appear at court or in a lawyer’s office for a deposition, or to produce documents. I’m not a private investigator.”
“You find people,” Marvin said. “I heard. Old guy at Gwen’s told me.”
“A few times,” I said. “A few times I found some people.”
“There, there she is,” he said, tapping on a photograph on the page I had just turned to. He was tapping on the color photograph of a very pretty and very well sculptured blonde in a blue dress. The girl was smiling. Her teeth looked white and perfect. I guessed she was no more than eighteen. Another girl about the same age stood next to the blonde. She was pretty, thin, wearing a red dress and no smile.
“Who’s the other one?”
Marvin craned his neck awkwardly to get a better view at the photograph with a look of amazement as if he were seeing it for the first time.
“Sarah,” he said. “She’s been dead a long time. I need to find Vera Lynn.”
He was looking at me and rocking back and forth.
“When was the last time you saw Vera Lynn?” I asked.
He bit his lower lip considering the question.
“Twenty, twenty-five years maybe. I got a letter.”
He reached over and turned the album pages quickly past yellowed notes, withering photographs, cracking postcards, matchbooks, and some candy wrappers.
“Here,” he said, triumphantly slapping the page he was looking for with the palm of his hand.
I was looking down at an envelope.
I had come to the Crisp Dollar Bill to have a sandwich, a beer, and to feel sorry for myself, not for Marvin Uliaks. I removed the letter from the envelope.
Marvin fidgeted around and leaned forward getting nearly on top of me.
“Letter’s from Vera Lynn,” he said, pointing to the neatly scripted name in the corner of the envelope I had laid aside. “She’s not in Ocala no more. She’s not in Dayton no more. I called, asked. Long time ago. I looked for her couple of times. Took the bus or a car out of Ocala after the wedding.”
I was tempted to ask Marvin about Dayton and whatever wedding he was talking about. I didn’t. Instead, I said, “This letter’s almost twenty-five years old.”
“I know. I know. I just want you to find her. Tell me where she is, is all.”
“Family business,” he whispered as he rocked. “Important family business. All I can say about it. Family business is all I can say.”
“Why now after all this time?” I asked.
“Somethin’s come up. Family business. I don’t want to talk about it. Please just find Vera Lynn. Let me talk to her, like just a minute. Converse.”
“Fresh beer?” Billy called from the bar.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“On me, Mr. Fonesca,” Marvin said. “On me.”
“You want privacy, Mr. F.,” Billy said from behind the bar. “I’ve got a job out back Marvin can do, cleaning out the cabinets.”
Marvin shook his head “no.”
“No, thanks,” I told Billy. “Marvin and I are old friends.”
Actually, I had known Marvin for a couple of years, but we weren’t friends. He did odd jobs in the three-block stretch of stores on 301 from Main Street to the Tamiami intersection, basically my neighborhood. Marvin washed windows, ran errands, swept up in exchange for food from the restaurants, an old pair of shoes or pants from a shoe or clothing store, a dollar from other businesses, and a place to sleep behind the sagging Angela’s Tarot and Palm Reading shop down the street from where I worked and lived.
I was now engaged in the longest conversation I had ever had with my friend Marvin.
“I got a confession, Mr. Fonesca. I got drunk. Just a little. To get up the nerve to come find you. Then I was ashamed of being drunk so I sobered. So now my head is hurting fierce.”
I gulped the last of my beer, patted Marvin on the shoulder, slid out of the booth, and got up.
“She’s gone, Marvin,” I said. “Get some sleep.”
“I’ve got money,” he said, digging into the pockets of his old denim jacket. Crumpled singles, fives, and tens appeared in his gnarled fists. He dropped them on top of the open album and kept digging into his pockets.
“See, I can pay.”
Like a kid doing magic tricks Marvin continued to produce bills from his pants pockets, shirt pocket, the cuffs of his socks.
Lincoln and Washington looked up at me from the top of the heap of bills.
“We got a discrepancy there?” Billy called.
Marvin was hyperventilating now, his large eyes fixed on my face waiting for the answer to all his prayers.
“Almost all my life’s savings,” he said, his face pressing against an imaginary window of expected failure. “Just about all I’ve got. I’m not asking for favors here. Oh, no. I’m hiring you just like any other Joe. You too busy now? Okay, but I’m a…a…”
Marvin wasn’t sure of what he was and I wasn’t going to tell him.
“Billy,” I called. “You have a paper bag?”
Billy looked over at the pile of bills.
“Paper or plastic?”
“Paper,” I said.
Billy pulled a paper bag from under the bar, came around, and handed it to me. I shoved Marvin’s money into it and handed Marvin the bag. He pushed it back at me.
“I’m saying ‘please,’” Marvin said. He looked as if he were going to cry.
“Twenty dollars a day,” I said with a sigh. “If I don’t find Vera Lynn in five days, I give it up and you promise to give it up. Deal?”
Marvin went stone still.
“Give me forty in advance for two days,” I said. “Most it can cost you is a hundred. I’ll need the album and the letter.”
He nodded and smiled.
“That’s business,” he said, holding out his hand. We shook and he dipped into the paper bag to pull out four tens. He handed them to me. “All’s you got to do is find her, tell me where she is. I’ll do the rest. It’s important.”
“I’m closing up for an early lunch, Mr. F.,” called Billy, closing the newspaper. “Meeting some people at Longhorn. Place’s like a morgue this morning anyway.”
I assumed both Marvin and I were prime contributors to the funereal atmosphere.
I closed the album, tucked it under my arm, went to the bar, and handed Billy one of the four tens Marvin had put in my hand. Billy nodded and Marvin followed me into the street.
Traffic was moving slowly, but there was a lot of it. I wanted to cross the street, go to my room, and watch The Shadow, but I knew I’d be looking at Marvin Uliaks’s album.
“Anything else you can tell me about her?” I asked.
“All in the book,” he said, tapping the album. “All the answers I got. Like the Bible. Got the answers. You just have to figure out what they mean. I never could, not in the album, not in the Bible, not in any book pretty much even when I was a kid. But you know how to find me. Right now I’m going to Lupe’s Resale to do some work unless you want me to come with you.”
“Go to Lupe’s,” I said. “I’ll find you if I need you.”
He stood on the sidewalk while I waited for a break in traffic and jogged across the street, past the DQ, through the parking lot, and up the stairs to my office. When I turned around, Marvin was standing where I had left him looking up at me. I motioned for him to go to Lupe’s. I pointed in the right direction. He shook his head in understanding and walked to his right while I entered my office.
Home. The day was cool. A little over seventy degrees. Typical winter in Sarasota. I didn’t need the air-conditioning, which was good because I don’t have any. The ancient air conditioner that came with the office had given out. Ames McKinney had kept it alive for more than a year. We had buried the window unit in the Dumpster at the DQ with Dave’s permission.
I opened the windows, pulled the chains on the Venetian blinds, flipped on the fluorescent light, and listened to it crackle as I sat down at my desk with Marvin’s album in front of me.
There wasn’t much in the office to distract me. There was a single chair across the desk. A wastepaper basket with a Tampa Bucs logo under the desk and facing me on the wall was a poster, the only decoration in the room, an original Mildred Pierce. Joan Crawford looked across at me feeling my pain and Mildred’s. Tomorrow was Friday. I’d watch my tape of the movie tomorrow night in the next room where I had my cot, television, and VCR. Tonight I was watching The Shadow.
The beer and Marvin’s appearance had taken a little of the sting from my cheek. Not enough, just a little.
Except for a possible call from a lawyer with papers to serve and dinner that night with Sally Porovsky and her kids at the Bangkok, Marvin Uliaks’s album was the only obligation on my schedule for the week. It was more than I would have wanted, except for Sally and the Bangkok, but I had taken the forty from Marvin. I touched the cover of the album and glanced at my answering machine.
I got the answering machine from a pawnshop on Main Street. It was so old it would probably be worth taking to the Antiques Road Show in another few years. But it worked. I didn’t want to talk to people, not to old friends and acquaintances in Chicago, not to my own relatives, certainly not to the Friends of the Firefighters or someone claiming they could save me money on my phone bills. So, I never answered my phone, even when I was in my office or my room. If I was there and I was willing to talk to the person who started to leave a message, I would pick up. My answering machine message to callers was eloquent in its simplicity: “Lew Fonesca. Leave a message.”
I put a tentative finger on my cheek where Bubbles had slapped me. My cheek didn’t appreciate the touch. There were two messages on the machine.
Message one: “This is Richard Tycinker’s assistant Janine. Mr. Tycinker has an order for appearance at a deposition for you to serve, maybe two if I get the paperwork and court date set this afternoon.”
Message two: “Lew? Flo here. Give me a call. Adele’s…It’s about Adele.”
Tycinker could wait. I didn’t like the way Flo sounded.
I had known Flo Zink for about three years. She was loud, vulgar, sixty-eight years old, in love with country and western music, and very rich. Flo lived in a big house on the coast with a great view of Sarasota Bay. When her husband Gus had died two years earlier, Flo, who had developed a friendship with gin decades earlier, made it a love affair. Adele Hanford was an orphan who had been through more hell in her sixteen years of life than most families would experience in five generations.
Adele had run away from her mother to join her father in Sarasota. Her father had not only sexually abused her but turned her over to a cheap pimp on the North Trail who had in turn sold her to a middle-time slug named John Pirannes. Adele was an orphan because her father had murdered her mother who had tried to protect Adele. Adele had shot Pirannes and her father was killed by…but that story’s over. With the help of family therapist and friend Sally Porovsky, I had managed to have Adele taken in by Flo as a foster child. Adele had gone straight. Adele was doing well at Sarasota High School, even won a few prizes for poetry and stories, one of which was published in Sarasota City Tempo magazine. Adele’s story was about an abused girl who runs away from her family and finds salvation and respect as a waitress. I liked the story. I didn’t like the message from Flo. Flo had given up her love affair with alcohol for the chance to take in Adele. I didn’t know with certainty how tempting the memory of the comfort of gin might be and Flo’s voice was a toss-up between tipsy and distraught. Adele wasn’t easy. Before I called Flo, I opened Marvin Uliaks’s album.
Marvin’s album contained eighty photographs and a few postcards and newspaper clippings. Under each photograph Marvin had neatly printed in pencil the name of the person or persons or things in the photographs. No dates. I went through photographs of parents, aunts, uncles, people I supposed were friends, pictures of people clipped from magazines and newspapers including Mario Van Peebles, Al Unser, Bette Midler, Lionel Hampton, the Marlboro Man, Lainie Kazan, Bruce Cabot, and Douglas MacArthur. There were a few dozen of Marvin as he aged from golden child hood to gradual nearly blank homeliness. In each photo graph, Marvin was smiling or grinning. He looked better smiling. There were also six photographs of Vera Lynn. In the most recent one she looked about eighteen, a pretty girl in a white Sunday dress with a big white bow in her short blond hair. Marvin’s little sister would be in her mid-forties now.”
I read the one letter in the album, the one Marvin hi shown me. It didn’t help much. It was postmarked Dayton Ohio. It was in pencil, short, written simply in block letters for a slow-witted brother or by a slow-minded sister.
* * *
CHARLES AND I ARE MARRIED. WE ARE GOING TO MOVE. FORGIVE ME. I’ll WRITE AGAIN.
* * *
Vera Lynn’s printing was clear. Finding her might be easy or impossible. If I ran into emptiness, I could simply give Marvin his album back. I wouldn’t insult him by trying to return the forty dollars.
I decided to call Richard Tycinker’s office first. I got his secretary Janine who told me the papers were ready for me to pick up for delivery.
“Bubbles Dreemer slapped me in the face when I slapped her with the papers,” I said.
“Part of the job, Lewis,” she said. Janine was black, in her late thirties, raising two kids alone and managing to look like a model. Sympathy was not part of her job description.
“I was telling you so you could make a note in her file for the next person who served her papers,” I explained.
“If it happens,” she said, “it will probably be you.”
“I’ll deliver it in a hockey mask,” I said.
“Summons delivered by Michael Myers,” said Janine.
“Might stun her long enough for me to get away.”
“Might,” she agreed. “It would work on me.”
“Is Harvey in?” I asked.
Harvey was the official file coordinator for the firm of Tycinker, Oliver and Schwartz. His real job was unofficial computer hacker. Schwartz had offered me a retainer. I had turned down the retainer and agreed to a flat fee for each legal paper I delivered to the unwilling and often unsuspecting. Instead of the retainer, I got the use of Harvey’s dents when I needed them. Harvey had once been a successful businessman in love with alcohol, computers, and a series of three wives, all of whom eventually left him alone with his computers and the bottle. Lately he had cut out the alcohol and was spending more time on the computer, Diet Pepsi, and women. There was enough unravaged in the forty-nine-year-old Harvey to attract some very attractive women.
Harvey had a very well equipped room down a corridor near the washrooms where the lawyers and secretaries could drop by and check on whether Harvey was drinking Diet Pepsi or something stronger.
Some of what Harvey did bordered on the illegal. The firm knew it, counted on it and the signed document by Harvey that he would never engage in any illegal activity on the Internet.
Janine connected me with Harvey, who answered, “Yes?”
“It’s Lew,” I said. “Got your pen?”
“Vera Lynn Uliaks. Born, I think, in Ocala. Lived there till about 1970, somewhere in there. Moved to Dayton, Ohio, maybe. Probably got married there. Don’t know to who, someone named Charlie. Brother here in town, Marvin Uliaks.”
“That’s it,” I said.
“Are we in a hurry? I’ve got a few company projects.”
“No big hurry,” I said.
“Should have it for you by tomorrow,” said Harvey. “You want to call me?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Having a bad day, Lew?” he asked.
“They’re all bad days,” I said.
“I’ve been there,” Harvey answered. “Back to work.”
He hung up. So did I.
Flo Zink was next on my short list. The phone rang once. Actually, it was only half a ring when she picked it up.
“Lew?” she asked.
There was a lot in that question. Panic with a dash of fear and maybe, just maybe, a shot of Jack Daniel’s.
“How are you, Ho?”
“How am I? How am I? How the fuck do I sound?”
“Charming,” I said.
“How fast can you get here?” she asked.
“On my bike? Half an hour.”
“Rent a car. I’ll pay.”
“Adele’s gone. I’m not going to spill my soul on this goddamn telephone. Get here.”
She hung up. I checked my watch. I had an appointment with Ann Horowitz in two hours. I don’t have a shower. I don’t have a sink or a toilet. I usually shower after my morning workout at the YMCA downtown, which is a ten-minute walk from my place. But there is a building restroom outside my office and four doors down. It is not on the top ten list of facilities in Sarasota County, but it had a mirror and I had an electric razor, the same one my father had used for ten years before he died and my mother gave it to me in a box of his things. It worked well enough to get me through the day.
The thin guy in the mirror looked at me and shook his head as we shaved. I normally didn’t take a good or even passing look at the man in the mirror. His cheek was Bubbles Dreemer pink. I didn’t like meeting his sad spaniel look. I washed, brushed my teeth, combed back my remaining hair, and felt no more ready to meet the world than I had when I got up that morning.
The EZ Economy Car Rental Agency was six doors down on my side of 301. It had once been a Texaco gas station. The two guys who owned and ran the place were Alan and the older Fred. They looked like rotund cousins. They thought they had a sense of humor.
“Ah, Mr. Lewis Fonesca. How can we be of service to you today?” asked the older, pink-cheeked Fred.
Fred had a paper cup of coffee in his hand. Alan was nowhere in sight.
“Where’s Alan?” I asked.
“Home. Got Le Grippe, the flu, the bug.”
“Hey, he’s home losing weight, watching Judge Judy, drinking green tea, and chewing on Advil. He should be lappy. How can I make you happy?”
“What’ve you got?”
“Personality,” said Fred who stood up from his desk and saluted me with his coffee. He was wearing navy slacks and a short-sleeved pullover with “EZ Economy” embossed in white on the single pocket. “And coffee. It’s bad but it’s strong. Put three packets of Equal in it and it’s tolerable.”
“Tempting,” I said, “but I’m thinking more of a deal on something small and cheap.”
Fred took a sip of coffee and nodded to indicate he knew just what I wanted. I knew he did. He just wanted to bicker for a while.
“Got a ’99 GEO, tracker, runs smooth, fifteen thousand plus miles. How long you need it?”
“I don’t know. A day, maybe two.”
“One hundred a day, everything covered including insurance. Is that a bargain or is that a bargain?”
“That’s a bargain,” I agreed. “Give me a better one.”
Fred shrugged and drank some coffee. He looked deeply into the cup, maybe reading the grounds and my future.
“How cheap we going here? You got a homeless client or something?”
“Something,” I agreed.
“The ’88 Cutlass, the white one with ninety-four thousand miles. Looks good. Runs. I’ll sell it to you for five hundred.”
“I’ll rent it for twenty-five a day,” I said.
“You’re no fun today, Fonesca,” he said, going to the wall and taking a set of keys off one of the little hooks.
“I didn’t know I was fun any day,” I said as he looked at me and tossed the keys.
He was about to come back with something Fred clever but the telephone was ringing.
“Car’s where it always is. I think it has some gas. I’ll keep a tab. Quick question.”
The phone kept ringing.
“Who gave you that cheek?”
“Woman named Roberta Dreemer,” I said.
“Bubbles,” said Fred. “She’s living hell.”
“I’ve got the mark of the devil,” I said, thinking it was true in more ways than one.
Fred picked up the phone and waved good-bye to me.
“Glaucoma?” he said to whoever was on the other end of the phone.
I didn’t stay to hear the rest. I headed for the white Cutlass.
Copyright © 2001 by Double Tiger Productions, Inc.