The night was blacker than the thumbnail on a near-sighted carpenter, and like most nights I was putting in overtime on a bottle that I kept in my desk drawer for just such occasions. It seems as if those occasions seemed to be happening more frequently this year. I had just thrown back another belt when she walked in.
She wasn’t what you would call a looker, but still you wouldn’t look away. There in front of me stood about five-two of pure female in a two-piece business suit with matching scarf draped loosely on her shoulders tied with a lazy knot over her bosom. The sensible shoes told me she was more into function than style, so I knew I was dealing with a dame who knew how to make things happen. But things weren’t happening for her lately, and that’s why she came to me.
“Mr. Gumbo,” she inquired, but it came out more like a statement than a question.
“Yeah, I’m Gumbo,” I half belched, letting the hootch talk before I could wrestle my manners back. “Mike Gumbo, P.I. What can I do for you Miss…?”
“I need information on a family,” she continued quickly hardly waiting for my response. “The Colemans. They live in Ocala, Florida, at least I think they do, but I don’t know about the husband. I hardly ever see him there.”
She looked concerned, but not really concerned. It was like she wanted the information, but didn’t care if she got it or not.
“So what’s it to you? You want me to tag this guy? Is he an ex-husband or boyfriend?”
“No, nothing like that,” she almost spat it out like it was a distasteful thought. “I’m their realtor.”
That hit me like a ton of bricks. A Florida realtor. Now there’s something you don’t run into everyday. It’s almost like a horseshoe smith or the guy that makes those plastic tabs for collars. I didn’t think they had that many of them left. Selling real estate in Florida was about as hard as doing Sudoku in Chinese.
As if she read my mind she turned her head and continued like she was confessing a failing on her part.
“Yes, I’m trying to sell their house for them. I know it’s not an easy job, and I need every weapon at my disposal. So that’s why I came to you.”
“So you want me to tag this guy. See if he’s legit? Whatcha think, it’s a scam? They’re just stringing you along to see how far they can pull a donkey without a rope?”
“I just want to know what they’re up to. If you don’t think you can do it I’ll just go down the hall…”
“Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t say I’m not gonna do it. I just wanna know what’s it all about. OK, so no 20 questions. That’s fine by me. Listen, I get 50 smackers a day plus expenses. This might take a few days.”
“Fine,” she said coldly and reached in her purse. I expected her to pull out a wad of bills, but instead she handed me a little plastic card.
I took the card from her, rested my elbow on the desk and waved it in front of my face asking, “What’s this?”
“What?” she squawked back as if not understanding what I asked. “It’s my credit card. You DO take credit cards, right?”
“Lady, I ain’t no 7-11. When you walk in my door I expect cold, hard cash.”
“Well, the Colemans do too, so when they pay me, I’ll pay you. capiche?”
What was I gonna do? That doorway had been about as empty as a cookie jar in a fat kid’s house. There wasn’t another soul coming through it anytime soon, and to tell you the truth, she’s the first customer willing to pay in over a week.
“Yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll look into this Coleman family for you. Come back next week. You’ll get your report.”
She grabbed the card from my hand, forced a “thank you” from her thin lips then turned on her heels and left.
I ran my hand through my hair wondering what I got myself into this time. I put the bottle back in the bottom drawer and then opened the top one to grab a clean shirt. I straightened my tie, grabbed my camera and got to work.
She walked back into my office Thursday night without bothering to knock. It’s a good thing I had been expecting her or she might have found a snub-nose .38 in her face. That’s what kind of week it’s been.
“Well?” was all she said.
“Sit down,” I ordered her thinking I’d have to say it twice when she took a look at the condition of the chair I motioned to. She removed the scarf from her neck and hastily beat the dust from the seat before she turned and sat.
I reached for the thick binder in front of me and opened the cover with flourish letting it hit hard on the desk. As expected she jumped a little but quickly regained her composure peering at me to see if I had noticed. I didn’t have to.
“He’s not living there all the time,” I said while looking at a piece of paper instead of directly at her. “He’s living in an RV that belongs to his sister-in-law and works in this office building in downtown Lafayette, La.”
She took the news like she already knew it.
“So he’s left her?” she asked balling up the scarf in her hands.
“Not exactly. He comes back every month, stays for a week then packs up and leaves again.”
“And she lets him come home?”
“Looks happy about it, too. I tapped his phone. He talks to her all the time. Appears they’re trying to sell the place but can’t find a sucker.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said dryly throwing the scarf on her lap.
“So, they’re making it work the best they can. He works out of his house when he’s there. Does the daddy thing with the two boys at home. There’s a Spencer who’s around 16 or so. He’s a high school junior. Plays in the school band. Baritone, I believe. They went to State. He’s a good kid. Plays good, too. I tried tapping his phone, but that’s all I hear is tapping. Kid text messages like a maniac. I counted 1,232 just last week.
“Then there’s the little one, Graham. I think he’s nine but acts like he’s 21. He’s in fourth grade at this elementary school close by. Another good kid. He’s a singer in the school choral group; call themselves the Singing Yellow Jackets. Heard of them?”
She shook her head, and I continued.
“Kid’s a wizard on the computer. I thought he had picked up my cover once, but he was just messing around with a WebKinz.
“The mom’s a real looker. Keeps herself in shape. Goes to the gym like 3 or 4 times a week. But she’s a coffee addict. Got this espresso machine that won’t last long at the rate she’s using it. Most of the time she’s like a single mom, schleping the kids back and forth to school and activities. Mostly just a normal household. Got some good friends around there.”
I pulled a manila folder from the binder and opened it. Took out a picture and threw it on the desk toward her.
“Recognize them? That’s the oldest one, Haley. The guy she’s married to is named Layne, and they’re living in this nice little 2-bedroom they bought near Atlanta. Got two dogs and a cat. She’s going back to school. Get her master’s degree to be a teacher. Some days I wish that’s what I shoulda done instead of being a private dick.
“This one’s the oldest boy, Jon-Michael. His wife, Patti, is a teacher down in South Texas. He’s going to school and gonna graduate this December. Business, I think. They got a kid, Alex. Cute as a button but into everything. He’s the only grandkid as far as I can tell. Grandparents make quite a fuss over him. He had his first birthday in August, and she flew from Florida down there. Heck, I think even the daughter in Birmingham flew in too.
“Oh yeah, that daughter in Birmingham, she’s had quite a year. First she’s finishing up her last year of med school, then she gets hitched in May, and get this, to another doc. Doc Bryan. Yeah, and funny thing, a week after the wedding in Austin they both get their MD s in Houston. Then to top things off, they buy a house and move to Birmingham where they’re both doing their residency at UAB Med Center. Talk about your whirlwinds. She even got some kind of award, let’s see, yeah, Ross Award for Excellence in Pediatrics. Kid never stops.
“And if you think May was already full, wait. They got this other boy, Theo. Frat kid. Good looking guy. Graduated from Oklahoma. Got his degree from, let me read here, ‘The Gaylord School of Journalism and Mass Communication.’ He’s been working as a land man in Norman. Must be a smart guy.
“And then there’s this cutie, Kristen or Krissy. Looks like she’s 16 but is really a college senior in Austin. University of Texas there. Get this – she’s gonna be a teacher, too. What is it with these guys? Out to save the world one kid at a time? Anyway, she’s a trooper. Been working in a day care taking care of snotty-nosed 2-year-olds. Man, you’ll never catch me doin’ something like that. Bad enough wiping their nose, but changing a diaper? C’mon!”
I put both hands on top of the pile and looked across my desk at her. She looked at me like a mob boss eyeing a numbers runner who came up short.
“So that’s it?” she snapped as if daring me to say ‘yeah.’ “That’s all you found?”
“No,” I sniped at her, expecting that reaction. “Matter of fact, they’re all planning to travel to Ocala for the holidays.”
“All of them?” she looked at me wide-eyed.
“Yeah, according to what I found. Oklahoma, Austin, Kingsville, Birmingham, Atlanta, they’re all migrating back to the homestead.”
“Why, why that’s impossible,” she said, her voice raised about an octave.
“What’s so impossible? Thirteen people under one roof, what is it, you’re like superstitious or something?”
“No, it’s just that, well, that’s a lot of people.”
“Hey, these kids knew what they were getting into when the met and married. That guy’s been around the block, let me tell you. Not a lick of hair on the top of his head and his beard is almost snow white. Yeah, he knows what he’s doing. At least I think he does.”
“And what about her?”
“Hey, she’s the one that threw open the doors. In for a penny in for a pound. Chances are she’s not gonna let you show the house during the holidays.”
“Apparently not. Well, thank you for your time I’ll be back in touch.”
“Hey don’t you wanna see pictures? I got pictures.”
“I’ve seen pictures. In fact, I can see them anytime I want on their website.”
I must have looked like I just got punched in the gut. “They got a website?”
“Hey, I thought you were the private eye here. Of course, they have a website – www.Coleman360.com. Not only do they have a whole bunch of pictures, they have blogs, too.”
“Yeah, well, a website ain’t gonna tell you everything.”
“Just about,” she said and turned and walked out the door before I could even stand up.
I threw the folders back in the binder and slam the cover shut. I leaned back in my chair and reached for the bottom drawer. Yeah, it’s times like these I’m glad I have a bottom drawer to reach for.
The Christmas letters, Psalm for the Family and Mike Gumbo, were written in 2007 and 2008 when the family was in transition from Florida to Louisiana. Tom had moved to Louisiana living in temporary quarters, while Pamela stayed at the homestead in Florida with the children in school waiting on the sale of the home. They were reunited in 2009.
Categories: What was I thinking?