Read Along: Paradise Palms: Chapter 2
Sam Jeffrey rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed. After smacking his lips and rubbing his face, he decided it was time to get up. He’d never needed an alarm clock. Somehow he could just tell when the time was right to get up.
He ran his fingers over his scalp; he’d worn his hair in a tight buzz cut since junior high.
“Sam, come back to bed,” Girlfriend Sokolov purred as she rolled toward him, her accent thicker than normal.
Sam rubbed her thigh. “Girlfriend, you know I have to go to work.”
“You work here in the trailer park. It’s not like you have far to go. Just keep me warm for five more minutes.”
Sam loved Girlfriend. Her parents came from Russia and had gotten heavy into the hip-hop scene of the 80’s. They thought ‘girlfriend’ was a name, not just slang they used. Because it was said so much, they assumed it was also a popular name and hence, had a child named Girlfriend. Being raised in the States made her accent light and bordering on unnoticeable, but when she wanted to entice Sam, she could lay it on thick.
“Sam,” she said in a husky, accented whisper reminiscent of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle. “Come back to bed, Sam. I will take care of you all day long.”
“Aw, Girlfriend. You know I can’t.”
Sam jumped up and ducked into the bathroom before she continued her advances. He shut and locked the door, knowing that Girlfriend wouldn’t try to get in. One thing she respected was privacy. He’d have at least a few minutes to himself. He knew Mrs. Bilkins was waiting for him with the paint. Every August 21st she insisted that the Paradise Palms sign be repainted. Sam had sanded it down yesterday and today she expected it to be painted. When she expected something, she could be quite a bear to deal with if she didn’t get it, and if Sam didn’t start painting it right away, he wouldn’t get done before dark.
Girlfriend knocked on the door. “Sam, I want to shower with you.” She kept it up with the accent. It had a way of tearing down Sam’s defenses.
He reached into the shower then turned the water on. Cold. “I’m already in the shower.”
“Sam,” she whined.
Quickly Sam stripped and leapt into the shower. The cold water brought all his senses to life. He washed his body and the little bit of hair on his head and leapt back out, all in under a minute. He toweled himself off, dropping the towel to the floor, and opened the door.
“All done,” he said, standing naked in front of Girlfriend. She only had on a tight, white camisole and matching panties. She wasn’t going to make getting to work easy today.
Her deep-black hair framed her face in a disarrayed mane, but Sam kissed her on her slender nose and tried to push past her. She put a hand on his chest, leveled him with an intent stare of her deep green eyes that held him back.
“What does she have that I don’t have?”
“Aw, geez, Girlfriend. You know I’ve only got eyes for you. If I don’t get that sign painted today, Mrs. Bilkins is going to get upset.”
“You work too hard around this place, you need some time off.” Girlfriend pouted. “Time off for me. Can’t you take a couple days off and we’ll head up to Duluth? Or maybe take a week off and go to Canada? Something. Anything. Please Sam.”
Her hand drifted down his chest to his stomach. He had to stop her. As much as he didn’t want to, he had to.
“Mrs. Bilkins pays me well and takes care of the lot rent and utilities for us. If I’m late, she could very easily take that away. The last thing I need to do is get on her bad side, and you know how she gets in the fall.”
Girlfriend dropped her hand and her gaze. He hated it when she did that. He had to get to work, though.
“Girlfriend, I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
“How, Sam Jeffrey?”
She used his whole name. She was mad. Sam had to treat this one gently.
“When I go over to pick up the paint from Mrs. Bilkins, I’ll let her know I want next weekend…week off. We’ll go somewhere nice. You just get on the net and make the reservations and I’ll make sure I have the time off. How’s that sound?”
Her face brightened, but only slightly. She moved and allowed Sam to pass. He kissed her on the top of her head. As soon as he passed her, she closed the door. He was really going to have to make this one up to her. She could get moody at times, but he had to work. What was he going to do, jeopardize his situation for some early morning sex?
He put on his boxers, a t-shirt, a pair of blue work pants, and a tan work shirt before he sat down and laced on his steel-toed boots. He hated painting. He’d choose to do anything else but paint. But today, that’s what the job required, so that’s what he was going to do. He grabbed his keys, wallet, and John Deere hat off the counter. The hat used to be bright green, but now was more faded than anything, and the brim black with years of grime. He loved his hat and was almost never seen without it. The only times he hadn’t worn it in the past five years were the times Girlfriend had made him leave it home when he took her out to a fancy dinner at the golf club. He felt naked without it.
He grabbed a piece of garlic bread off the counter and scooped up the bite of lasagna that Girlfriend hadn’t finished the night before and headed out the door. Perhaps he could take a long lunch and really make things up to her. Yeah. That’s what he was going to do. Paint fast and get back here in a hurry. She’d like that. Maybe he’d even pick some of those flowers by the road she liked.
Stepping out of his trailer and into his patio that he’d built to keep Blue inside, he caught a whiff of something nasty.
“Blue! Did you tangle with a skunk again?” Sam covered his nose with his sleeve. “That’s nasty, dog.”
Blue, a Blue Heeler, whimpered and looked at Sam with innocent eyes.
“Yeah, I guess you can’t get out anymore, can you? What’s that smell though? I hope nothing from the trash again. That took me half the day to clean up.”
Giving the rest of the bread and lasagna to Blue, Sam opened the screen door. Blue shot out, still smacking on the food, and running into the yard to take care of her morning business.
“Sam! Sam! You’re awake. Thank God. I was getting worried.”
Sam looked up to see Pops Jasper, Casper Jasper Senior, yelling down from his crow’s nest. Not only did Pops have a crow’s nest, but he’d also constructed a faux ship’s bow over the front and top of his green trailer with white trim. Pops had built the nest to keep an eye over the trailer park, and he did that with an aggression that Sam admired. He just wished the old man would quit scaring him so early in the morning.
Cupping his hands over his mouth, Sam yelled up. “Pops, what are you doing up there?”
Pops set down his telescope he used to keep a close watch and yelled back. “It’s Junior! He didn’t come home last night! I’m worried about him, Sam. It’s not like my boy to leave his place empty all night.”
That caused Sam to laugh. Casper’s powder-blue Bronco sat in his driveway. Could it be that Casper finally got Julie to go home with him? Or even that he’d gone home with her? Julie was the kind of girl to get what she wanted when she wanted it. Maybe Casper finally wore her down. That lucky bastard.
“Pops, I’m sure he’s fine. He’ll probably be back later today. Maybe there was, you know, something he had to take care of last night.”
“Sam, you know my boy. He don’t go nowhere without telling me or calling me. That’s just not like him.”
“Pops, there isn’t a lot of land between the bar and here. Maybe he gave Julie a ride home and, I don’t know, slept on her couch last night.”
“Sam, he’d have called if he was going to do that. He knows I worry. Junior would have called, I tell you.”
“Look, Pops. I’d love to stay and chat here all day with you, but I’m sure Casper will turn up. I’ll keep an eye out for him and the moment I see him, I’ll have him call you. Say! Did you try his cell phone?”
“Do I look stupid, Sam?”
Ever since Junior’s mother was gone, Pops had become obsessively protective of Junior. Sam didn’t want to answer Pops. “Just keep trying him. He’s bound to answer sooner or later.”
Pops waved his hand at Sam in disgust. Sam wasn’t winning any points with anyone this morning. Hopefully things would go better with Mrs. Bilkins.
Sam walked across the park from his lot, #303, and through Pops’ yard. Blue ran ahead to chase a butterfly. Pops had taken up his telescope again and scanned every inch of the trailer park. Poor Casper. He was in for it when he got back. He’d just better hurry up and turn his phone back on.
Mrs. Bilkins had the only actual house in the trailer park. She sat near the entrance next to the laundromat. Her house also included the rental office, but that rarely got used as everyone either gave their rent to Sam to take up to the office, or dropped it through the mail slot. The park had been full for over ten years. The last family to move in was the Sanchezes; Julio, June, and their kids.
Across the main entrance road from the office sat the Sandy Bar, next to the Shell station. Sam would stop by there to make sure everything got locked up properly just to put his own mind at ease. Pops could be paranoid, but it could also rub off easily. Sam just didn’t want any surprises.
He tried to pull his hat down before the two old men in lot 101, already out on their porch and in their rockers, got to him. The men were old, balding, and always had something to say at anyone else’s expense. Sam had washed their trailer once, the beige trailer with brown trim, and they’d only complained that it still looked dirty. Sam had tried to tell them that was the color they’d picked out. They only proceeded to give him a hard time about it.
“Sam! Look at this grass.”
“Yes. I see your grass. I cut it last week, Waldorf.”
Waldorf laughed and poked his partner. “You hear that Statler? He said he cut the grass.”
“With what? A goat?”
“Even a goat could cut grass better than that.”
The two laughed. Sam shook his head. “Look, I’ve got to paint the sign today. I’ll cut your grass again tomorrow if you want.”
Statler leaned in to Waldorf. “What’d he say?”
“He said he’d cut the grass tomorrow.”
“Oh, good. I thought he said ‘kick your ass tomorrow’.”
Again the two laughed heartily. Always those two would twist his words and laugh at him. Sometimes they were funny. Sometimes. But today, Sam just didn’t have his sense of humor. It had to be that smell. He just couldn’t place it. If only a breeze would come and sweep the area clear of it.
Mrs. Bilkins stood with her hands on her hips, tapping her foot. Her stare bore into Sam once he noticed it. Her fat lips puckered around a Pall Mall, and she narrowed her eyes when she saw him. Even her brown and yellow flower-print housedress, covering her massive girth like a poorly hung drapery, looked mad at him. This was going to be a long day. He could just feel it.
“Sam! Are you going to get that sign painted today or what?”
“Or what!” Waldorf yelled back.
“I’m coming, Mrs. Bilkins.” Sam picked up his pace.
She smashed out her cigarette once he made it over to her. “It’s about time. I need that sign painted today. You know that every year we change the colors on the 21st. That’s how we’ve done it for 25 years now and I’m not going to change today. Now.” She pointed to the paint and brushes sitting on top of a tarp. “There’s everything you need. Get to it.”
What could he say? Even she was in a bad mood today. It must be that smell that was making everyone so edgy. Sam just hoped he’d run into someone who was in a good mood.
Mrs. Bilkins lit up another cigarette and went back into the office.
“Well, Blue. It’s just you and me. Let’s go paint us a sign.”
Mr. Bilkins, God rest his soul, had always painted the sign on the 21st of August when he’d purchased the park and renamed it Paradise Palms. In fact, he died while painting the sign. Once she’d hired Sam on, Mrs. Bilkins had actually been pleasant the first few years. As the years had gone on, she’d gotten more and more cynical, but today her snippiness seemed harsher. Almost mean. He couldn’t place it.
Sam collected up all the supplies and headed to the main entrance. It was called the main entrance, but in fact it was the only entrance to the park. The rest of it, the two side roads that dead ended and the main road, were all surrounded by thick woods. Everything for two miles back was owned by Mrs. Bilkins. Fortunately no one had ever been interested in buying it. Sam had grown up here and once his parents died, he couldn’t think of ever living anywhere else. He’d worked odd jobs all over the county until Mr. Bilkins passed away and Mrs. Bilkins needed full time help. Sam, being the homebody he was, couldn’t pass up the offer. Perhaps that’s why all his girlfriends always left. Nah, couldn’t be. Girls loved a man who stayed home, didn’t they?
He put the paint and brushes down and spread out the tarp under the seven-foot sign that lay in front of the Shell station. Damn, he’d forgotten to bring a ladder. He didn’t want to go all the way back over to Mrs. Bilkins. She’d probably just get on his case about not getting started early enough. And he hadn’t even thought about bringing up his taking next week off. Damn. Now Girlfriend would be even madder at him.
He knew about a ladder kept behind the Sandy Bar. He could just go over there and borrow it. No one would be any the wiser and Julie wouldn’t mind if he borrowed it for a day.
Walking across the front of the Sandy Bar, he saw marks in the gravel as if someone had peeled out. Spit up a lot of gravel too. He’d have to rake that over later. But who’d do that? Probably some kids that had a couple too many. He rounded the corner and saw something different. What was that? Drag marks? It looked like something heavy had been dragged off into the woods. Something really big. Like, what? A body? There was no blood. No sign of struggle in the dirt.
A shrill beep came from the woods. Sam didn’t own a cell phone, but he knew the sound of a battery going dead. He waited and listened. It beeped again. Yeah, that was a dying cell phone battery alright. He walked slowly into the woods and kept his ears open for the sound. The crinkling of leaves was loud, but the piercing beep was audible over them.
Sam watched the ground. The drag marks led in the direction of the beeps. Could someone have been dragged out here to die?
The phone rang. Sam nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard it. Phone call for a dead man? The realization hit him. It had to be Casper. No! Don’t let it be Casper. He and Junior had played high school ball together. They were the best of friends and you never wanted to see a teammate go down. No. It couldn’t be.
Sam ran through the woods to the ringing. He had to find him. He had to see and know it wasn’t Casper. Pops would be torn up if anything happened to his boy. It just couldn’t be.
Sam saw the body. It was. Damn.
He took off his hat and approached. The phone stopped ringing. Sam looked at Casper’s body lying on the ground. That’s when he noticed Junior wasn’t all there.