Sunday in the Park With Josh

This story appeared in It’s Always Something, volume 14 of the Indian Creek Anthology Series published by the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group.

Sunday in the Park With Josh (Excerpt)

by T. Lee Harris

Katzen pulled his ancient black RX-7 into the drive of the trailer park, called simply “The Park”. He’d passed the faded home-painted sign with its grade school triangle pine trees and washed-out arrow twice before he finally noticed it set back from the road. Finding the trailer of Sammie Longbaugh, the elderly neighbor lady entrusted with the key, was cake after that.

Connor had given the number of her trailer (six) and added that she had a lot of stuff on her porch. The man had the gift of understatement. Sammie Longbaugh’s trailer bristled with kitsch. It whirled, tinkled, sparkled and flapped in the late morning breeze. Gnomes, kittens, bears and bunnies lined the steps onto the wooden porch whose gingerbread decorations and scroll-work plant hangers had surely been the death of a platoon of plunge-routers. He stopped, open-mouthed at the display, until a pair of gleaming gold eyes amid the folderol caught his attention. A sleek gray cat hunkered near an opalescent pink bowl of kibble, intently watching, ready to bolt, but reluctant to leave the food. A smaller black cat peered warily over the gray’s back.

He smiled and crouched down, calling to them softly. After a moment, they sauntered closer and deigned to let him pet them. The trailer door opened a crack and a woman’s voice warned, “Don’t you hurt them.”

Still smiling, he stood. “Don’t worry, ma’am. I like cats; I have three of my own.”

The woman stepped all the way onto the porch and regarded him with open suspicion. She was small and bird-like – in the same sense that a sparrow hawk is small and bird-like. Josh stepped forward, hand extended, deftly sidestepping the cats winding around his legs. “Hi, you must be Mrs. Longbaugh. I’m Josh Katzen, a friend of Connor McCrae’s. I think he called you about –”

Her entire demeanor changed. “OH! Connor! Do you know where he’s been? I pick up his mail for him every morning and he hasn’t been over to get it for DAYS!”

Katzen paused, nonplussed. “Uhhhh. Yes, ma’am, he’s in St. Louis – didn’t he call to tell you I was stopping by to borrow his door key?”

The little lady suddenly looked very uncertain. “Call me? No, I don’t think he’s called me.” She thought about it again, then asserted. “No, he never called me. I’m sure I’d remember that.”

Realization dawned. He’d seen memory lapses like this before. Unless he was mistaken, the lady was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He hoped he was mistaken. She seemed to be a plucky, likable person. It would be a shame for her to descend into that grey fog. He nodded. “I’m sure he’ll call later, then. Anyway, he asked me to borrow his door key from you so I could get something from his trailer that he needs.” He felt a nudge at his knee and looked down. The little black cat was patting at him in hopes of more ear scratches. He obliged it.

“Those are strays. I feed ’em so they stay close and keep the mice away.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me. If I could get Connor’s key, I’ll just pick up his stuff and get it back to you.”

“Oh, I don’t have a key to his trailer.”

“Funny, he told me you did.”

“No, I have the key to his mailbox, though. I get his mail every morning, but he hasn’t been home. Do you know when he’ll be back?”

News of the infection and hospitalization were on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back. There was no reason to alarm her just yet. Besides, he couldn’t be sure she’d remember it if he told her. Instead, he said, “Connor and Avi Rosenberg will be in St. Louis for a while yet. There’s a conference there.”

“Dr. Rosenberg! I’ve heard Connor talk about him. Do you work at the university, too?”

“No ma’am. I’m an artist. I work with Dr. Rosenberg on archaeological digs.” He sighed inwardly. This was getting him nowhere. Reaching a decision, he stepped toward the car. “Well, thanks, Mrs. Longbough. I’d better get moving.”

She looked disappointed that she was losing her company. She called. “’Bye … uh … Kevin. You be sure to tell Connor to come pick up his mail.”

“Sure thing, Mrs. Longbaugh.”

He drove up two lots to McCrae’s trailer and parked the Mazda in front of an extended cab pickup truck with a camper on back. Assuring no one was watching, he slipped his hand under the seat and withdrew a slim leather case that slid unobtrusively into his jacket pocket. Grumbling how it was a damned good thing he didn’t need a key, he stomped up the overgrown walkway. If this went sour, Avi Rosenberg was gonna pay for it big time. His grumbling turned to a grin when got his first good look at the lock. One of the cheapest, flimsiest cylinders made. He could almost open the thing by breathing on it hard. He chose a metal pick from the case and had the door open before he completed the thought that he needed to point Connor to a better make of lock. Still grinning, he stepped in.

The grin abruptly disappeared as he surveyed the wreckage around him. At first, he thought someone had been here before him and ransacked the place, then he remembered the infamous mess in Connor’s office – but this was ten times worse. Maybe thirty. Suddenly, the word “buried” took on a chilling new meaning. He stepped over a toppled stack of computer magazines, closed the door behind him, and flipped his cell open, then hit speed dial #2. It rang once on the other end.

“Hey, Josh! Where are you?”

“Avi Rosenberg, I hate you.”

“Ah, you’re at Connor’s place.”

“Your mitzvah level will never recover from this thing you’ve done.”

“Oh, come on, Josh. Do you see any sign of the thumb drive? He said it might be in the vicinity of the couch.”

“I’ll be lucky to find the couch.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

Katzen’s answer was silence.

After a moment, Rosenberg commented, “Well, we knew he wasn’t a neatnik.”

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