L. Scott Proffitt
The Sarasota Detective Agency
L. Scott Proffitt
I look back on my life
as if it were the dream I had last night.
Bees give wax and honey,
their gift from the bloom.
Sweetness and light to fill our senses.
My how fine a flavour,
My how clear a vision illumined from gloom.
If only I could be a drone
would life’s fulfillment follow me
to mortal gates
from sweetest bloom
Oh what shall be my essence Lord,
to profit and improve this world?
Or shall it merely seem to be
a moment in eternity
when eyes take stock and feet place forth to make a stand
while planets hurl through endless space,
to prove me gone without a trace?
It had rained and the air held the intoxicating fullness of wet warm pavement. Arianna had been watching the man who was watching her, for several minutes as she pretended to fiddle with her backpack and check her phone. Typical New Yorker situational awareness. She was to meet a study group at the library. The subway was just a block down. She could take a taxi or get a ride, but the subway invited her with its own heady sights and smells, which she had not tired of over the last four years in the City.
The man offered no such intrigue, just a sense of dread, and challenge. In her usual way she went straight towards him. He lit a cigarette and ignored her. Even when she was three feet away, and right in front of him. He was over six feet and brawny. Very casual, unassuming. He inhaled and streamed smoke at her face as if to dissolve her presence. That failing, he continued to ignore her.
“Saw you yesterday. After school. And the day before, at the concert.”
She did not ask a question. It was more a challenge.
“Yup.” He did not make eye contact. He put his smokes and lighter carefully into an inside jacket pocket.
“Why are you following me?”
His smile was tight, pursed. He shifted feet and closed the distance quickly between them. “I think you know little girl. My boss. He’s right pissed off at you.”
Ari did not back down. She looked up, into his face.
“Yeah? Who do you work for?”
He was fast. She was on the ground, his knee was on her chest. The weight kept her from inhaling and precluded any action on her part. Only a hope that he would get off soon, and gritty stubborn anger, kept her from pleading. She had not exhaled fully, she had a bit of air, she could wait. He grabbed her hair and pulled her head up hard. Their faces inches apart, he spoke in a whisper.
“Girlie, I can see you don’t fear me. That’s fine. You stop. You back off, or everybody you know and love will die a bad death. Mom, drunk Dad down in Florida, oh and your little friend that started this. Last warning girlie. This is no game, no timeouts, no help, no warnings. Clear?”
At last he let his knee up. Arianna exhaled and inhaled several times as he stood. The pain in her chest was tremendous, but she rolled over and slowly got up. She had to. Pride and anger.
“My father will take you and your boss apart, you coward. Attacking a child. Have you no honor?”
Once again he was on her. The swift punch to the stomach was not expected and she went down on one knee. The man pulled her hair up once more. She was getting really tired of having her hair pulled. The smell of rain was overwhelmed by cigarettes and beer, body odor and cheap cologne. They all mingled to create a noxious aroma that made her want to puke – or perhaps it was getting punched in the stomach. She looked up at him again. His face was not the mean or ugly countenance she thought a man who punched young girls would carry. Straight, sharp nose, with a slight hook that gave him the sinister profile she had observed for the past few days. Brown eyes and black hair. He did not look like a thug. Beard stubble that was probably only a few days old, but made him look older than he probably was. She guessed maybe twenty years of age, and more a kid than a man. She still could not catch a decent breath, as the muscles spasmed in her stomach and diaphragm.
“Listen to me.” Bronx accent much stronger now.
“I killed more than I can count. You are not done. I can tell. I am going to Florida. Let’s see if your drunken old man is as tough as you.”
She didn’t purposely hit his testicles, she just took both arms up in one swift, unified motion. and there they were. There wasn’t much else she could reach when she swung forward. But both her forearms made perfect contact. The thrust made his face go white as he let go of her hair and grabbed her arms. She was not done. He was dazed. A whole lot was happening in his neurological and biological system. For tens of thousands of years the hard-wired pain to just this type of damage reigned supreme. You protected the gonads, or paid the price. This guy was paying the price. In her dojo they stressed repetition of attack to the weakened area especially when fighting a much larger enemy. As she stood she kicked him in the nether region while grabbing his shirt and pulling him in close. Then he was flat on his back. She climbed on top bringing her knee into his diaphragm, and tennis shoe pushing up slightly between his legs just as a reminder not to move. She pulled his hair and head up and came so close she could count his nose hairs as she looked him up and down. It felt good to treat him as he had treated her.
“Go to Florida. My father will make this little interlude seem like a dance at a party. Tell your boss.”
Arianna got up, wiped her hands and straightened her shirt then ran her fingers through her hair. Picking up her bag she stepped over the young man.
“My father will eat you boys for breakfast.”
Light brown, almost blond hair. High cheekbones, aquiline nose and flaring nostrils. Almost beautiful, but definitely her own look. Arianna Jackson was fourteen years old, but acted and looked much older. At the moment hard and calculating was the look she bore. She pulled her phone out and was texting swiftly as she made her way to the corner, hailed a cab, and left the young thug on the sidewalk to slowly rise. He leaned against the building for a very long time before moving on, bent over like an old man.
“I am going home. Back to Mom. I am gonna go back to school” He muttered, as he inhaled the sultry air and contemplated the return journey to his car.
Meanwhile Arianna’s hero/father was deciding whether to vomit in the oversized pot at his bedside, or try to make his way to the bathroom. He knew he was dehydrated. Badly. Dehydration is what kills you after this many days. So he had been sipping some tap water. It was not sitting well, and thus the debate. He was very weak. Getting up seemed impossible but he knew he was in for another protracted retching bout and the porcelain throne offered that strange cool comfort…
When he returned to bed some twenty minutes later, he didn’t think he would be getting up again. He did not care. He fell into a deep sleep.
Orange streaking rays of sunset contrast with blue and green of sea and sky. Amber sands bear footprints of those I love the most as they stand before me. I reach out to them. They turn away.
Bookstore mustiness takes me to a cat-laden couch where all I see are empty shelves and sleeping cats. I reach out to books that are not there.
The amber sand mixes blue, green and pink of sunset, sky, and water. I watch as my wife and daughter, caught by a wind, blow away despite my graspings.
I am at the bookshop, at the register, selling a book; the customer thumbs the tome to reveal empty pages and eyes me questioningly.
I see my funeral. No one is there but my three cats, who indifferently observe the descending casket. My mother’s empty eyes walk me down a path as she questions why I am not there for her. My daughter hands me a box and inside it is empty. She gazes and says,
“For you. A box. A box of nothing.”
Arianna, my daughter, my lost child. She was everything, but where was she? Gone, gone, gone. So bright, so beautiful. She was everything. The best of us and so much more. I remembered her charm and wit. So incredibly smart and confident, unusually strong, both physically and mentally. Now gone.
I lurch awake. Sweaty and weak and devoid of what the here and now contain, unsure of what is real and what is not.
Slowly, I remember. My daughter is in New York with her mother. The emptiness I feel from the loss of my child and my wife is overwhelming and all that matters.
I am sick. Sicker than I ever have been in my long, pathetic life. It has been going on for about a week, I think. The days and nights are one long misery. Some bug that started in my lungs, but soon spread to my entire being. The unceasing nausea is the worst. I prayed to the god I did not believe in to let me vomit or let me die, and He, or She, would initially grant me the temporary surcease of the former. But the relief was short, and as the days increased, the nausea was accented only by the fluctuations in my temperature. The sweats that left me weak and dripping wet. This was followed by uncontrollable bone-shaking chills, that left me too exhausted to contemplate alternative treatments to my time-honored approach of digging up several old antibiotics I had failed to finish, and compensating by taking extra doses. After many days of this I found myself drifting into a state I think would qualify as delusional. At times upon waking, I required several minutes to sort through the hallucinations and memories and settle on who and where I was.
I was born Atticus Jackson. Named after my paternal great-great-grandfather, Colonel Samuel Atticus “Cornwall” Jackson, who had served with honor on the losing side of the War Between the States. I lived life with a sense of foreboding instilled from an early age, and common in families on the decline. Growing up in the South, with my father’s Southern family, discussions tended to focus on all the family once had and all it had lost. Many tales of this sort are embellished. In the case of the Jackson Family, the loss was easy to document. This downward slide capped off with the Great Depression, and that was pretty much the end of the accumulated land, wealth, and ambition amongst my clan.
The genealogy was known well enough to trace who lost what, so the family tree was more a Greek tragedy than a family history. There was a sense that any great deeds had been done long ago. The family focused on recalling the injustices of the past, while experiencing the injustices of the present. In the South, in general, many feel the opportunities created by the mass migration from the North during the last century of the 2nd millennium A.D. were grasped by the newcomers.
A new generation of carpetbaggers was upon us, and frankly, we were too busy living in the past to be bothered. I had a slightly different twist on this view. I felt the Northern Folk, far from just fleeing the cold, were fleeing a wasteland of toxic dumps, polluted rivers, and strip-mined countryside. A region squeezed dry, and now dirty, used up, and ready to be abandoned. This was the story of mankind. Aggressively swarming, abusing God’s green earth, chewing up the resources of an area, and moving on to fresh ground. Five hundred to a thousand people a day, every day for my entire life, have moved to the fine state of Florida. Fresh meat, in this case already occupied by a more passive people, incapable or unwilling to fend off the invaders, and destined to be overrun and cast aside.
Due to the vicissitudes of nature, I, a son of southern parents, was born in Ohio and thus, ironically, one of the Yankee invaders myself. This made familial ties worse…to the point I no longer associated with them. I get tired of people who dwell on the past as an excuse for not doing anything in the present. I don’t like bigots and I don’t like people who condemn a region, a race or a religion, although the species as a whole is fair game for criticism.
The amusing aspect of the north-south schism was nicely summed up by a Northerner, who discussed the matter with me over drinks at Sloppy Joe’s.
“You know what Northerners think about Southerners?” He (we) had been drinking for a while at various locations on Duval Street. He (we) slurred a bit at this point and he was ranting.
“We don’t! We won the war. It was over a hundred years ago, anyway. No one alive fought in it. We have moved on!”
Many Southerners have not moved on. My own issues, as I mentioned, focus on the human tribe, most of whom I am not so crazy about, and prefer to avoid.
My grandfather had a grocery store in a small southern town. He was in disfavor with members of the Caucasian community because he sold to people without regard to color. While the community held him in disfavor, this did not keep them from buying on credit during the Great Depression. Though the town was very small, a grocery store chain moved in directly across the street from my grandfather and undercut his prices. The town could buy cheaper and still not pay back the money they owed my grandfather. My grandfather soon closed his doors.
It was not long before the chain store decided they did not need an outpost in such a small town and closed down the branch. Since then, people in this town have had the privilege of driving 15 miles to the nearest convenience store to get a quart of milk.
My father had an independent hardware store. I remember being amazed at the number of different nails, washers, screws, drill bits, and miscellany he kept track of. That store lasted until the first chain hardware store opened in a strip mall across the street. A heart attack saved him the effort of going out of business.
And so it should be no surprise that I went into the book business. A genetic proclivity for failing enterprises, my friend Catfish would say. I did very well for the first eighteen of the twenty-odd years I was in the business. In the last few years, my wife (justifiably) left me and took my daughter, and the town was blessed with the addition of three national bookstore chains.
Fortunately, I no longer cared. I gave up. People wanted Walmart. They wanted everything for the least price – who can blame them?
So this is my tale. I kept the bookstore because I owned the building, and I had one last employee I could not manage to fire. She was good, did almost all the work, I paid her all the profits and then some, and slowly spent my life savings maintaining the status quo. Four years passed quickly. I still missed my wife and grieved for the years lost with my daughter. I missed being a successful bookseller. I also lost my will to live. I just didn’t care about anything, really. And did I mention I was really, really sick?
I am home, preparing to die from this mysterious flu, and the phone rings. I usually don’t answer my phone. Perhaps it required just such a horrendous illness for me to be lowered to such a debasing action. I even was not rude.
“Atticus, you answered.”
“Did you call just to see if I would?”
It was Adrianna. Adrianna Jackson. Adrianna Maimonides Jackson, my wife. At least I still thought of her that way, and since I had consistently shredded all correspondence from the attorney, and read but not responded to her own letters, I was somewhat able to ignore many rather obvious facts. I knew a judge had issued a divorce decree, but my copy I also shredded unopened. Did I mention I really like shredders? I had signed everything of value over to her during the divorce process, including the bookstore and the house, in which I now lay bathed in my own increasingly sour sweat. Not that she needed these properties; she was a high-powered attorney bringing down good money. My motives, delusional in retrospect, were hopes of winning her back.
God how I loved that woman. Do not misunderstand me, she was independent, opinionated, stubborn, feisty. Our marriage had always been complicated and stormy. I digress. My reply sounded snide but I did not mean it that way. After four years, emotions were, let us say, anesthetized.
“I have been calling. I sent a messenger service to your house and to the bookshop. I was getting ready to have the police break down your door.”
This made me actually sit up, which caused a whole series of health related issues, but I held on to the cordless phone, and was able to reply.
“Is everyone okay?”
“Other than the fact your daughter is flying down as we speak?”
“Sorry. Uhm, Adrianna, could you repeat?”
“Arianna, your daughter. Today, Sarasota.”
Yes I know, mom Adrianna, daughter Arianna. Very cute, but couldn’t we have been a bit more original? I had argued against the name, just on the basis of confusion. Phone calls, messages, all communication would require clarification.
‘Did you say Arianna or Adrianna?’ I predicted this would become the new household mantra. Nonsense, my wife had countered, one is a long ‘a’ followed by a dental stop, the other a short ‘a’ with a guttural rhotic r (I had to look it up to see what it meant, and I am still not sure I do). Adrianna thought out things. She was not devious, just deliberative and deliberate. I tended to be therefore, unprepared, and reactionary in most discussions. And she did not insist, she merely countered by asking what names I had been considering, and since I had not been considering, I was at a disadvantage.
“Adrianna, I am sick, I mean, really sick, in bed, flu for days, I just can’t…”
“Atticus, you have to deal with this. Flight 741, Delta, out of Atlanta, arrives 2:38. Put her on the next flight home.”
I had a series of questions, but I was feeling the need to lie down, and the shakes were coming back so I just said okay and hung up. I lay down a bit and then got up, called my cab, showered and dressed (all of which required the greatest of efforts and occasional loss of consciousness) and clambered into the cab waiting for me at my door.
My daughter flying down on her own as a young teen was not surprising. Arianna was of the most precocious nature. At seven years of age she was reading the classics. By age nine she talked and acted like a character in a Jane Austen novel. Sophisticated, adult, physically stronger than most adults with an intelligence to match. Heaven help the teacher she disliked. With a mocking sardonic tone she could reduce the strongest natured educator to tears, or a career change. Otherwise she was witty and charming and mature beyond her years. We travelled the world at her mother’s insistence, and she was tutored in everything from music, to languages, to self-defense. We spared no effort or expense and it resulted in a most interesting and intriguing child. When they moved away I did not think I could go on. She, and her mother, were everything I lived for. I anticipated seeing her with a mix of yearning and dread. Did she hate me? Would she mock me and my meager life? Why was she coming? And why with no notice? These were my thoughts as I focused on not vomiting in the taxi on my way to quickly drop by my doctor’s office, and then to the airport.
When my grandfather needed a doctor, the doc would come quickly to our home, with a black bag containing almost anything you might need. If you had no money, a chicken, or some eggs would do. Now you go to visit the doctor and you wait, then they move you to another room where you get to spend some quality time by yourself, usually without the dated issue of People magazine you were attempting to generate some interest in, and wait some more. Perhaps a nurse will come and weigh you or something, and you can wait some more. They need to have the patients piled up, slipped into these rooms, so the doctor can move from one to the next in an expedient fashion, the equivalent of an assembly line.
Interestingly, this makes the patients unhappy, and the doctors are also miserable. The most compassionate doctor can afford little time with a patient if he or she wants to be able to pay his or her rent, staff, and self. Moreover, with increasing regularity the government and the insurance agencies send a note letting them know how much less they are going to get paid for a specific treatment. No profession that requires so many years of schooling and training earns so little as the General Practitioner of Medicine. I walked into Doctor Dranyam’s, breezed passed the front counter and caught the first nurse I saw.
“I am deathly contagious.” I did my best to look like I was dying, and communicable.
“I am an old friend and client of the Doctor. I can either die in your waiting room or if I could just see her a second. If you could just tell her a madman named Atticus Jackson is making a scene.”
The nurse froze. She looked around for help, thinking of her physical safety no doubt. I feinted a faint, and clutched a counter for support, groaning.
“Call 911!” was the best she could do as she grabbed my side.
A nurse came out of a room, and fortunately recognized me. Alice, or Alma, maybe Andrea, something like that.
“Jackson, it’s been years. You look like hell. Nurse bring him in here immediately.” I was practically carried into the room, and stifled my groans and whimpers.
“You must be on death’s door to actually come in.” She seemed to be amused at my plight. A smile playing on her otherwise inscrutable face.
The two nurses hoisted me onto the table. Then Alice or maybe Allyn, that was it Allyn, told the other one to get the doctor and tell her Atticus Jackson was in room two.
“You are a mess, what’s going on Atticus?”
“Flu, about a week of it. Have to go to the airport, in like 30 minutes, to pick up my daughter, but having trouble standing, breathing, not throwing up, little things like that.”
This was one of those grand nurses of olden days who did not dally. Blood pressure. Stick out tongue, Thump chest, gaze deeply into eyes and ears.
“The Doc is really busy, but I know with you she sort of knows your nature. I’ll be right back.”
I lay back and promptly fell asleep. I awoke to the good doctor and nurse hovering. There was a bag of liquid connected to my arm. The other nurse was giving me a shot.
“What time is it? I have to go!”
“And hello to you too Jackson. Any other patient I would hospitalize. Dehydration, probable pneumonia, God knows what else. Two more shots. Take these pills. Here is a bag with other stuff, the rest of the antibiotics I am putting you on, stuff you need and I should not give you without running tests, which I know you won’t do. Follow the directions on the sheet.” She looked at the fluid in the bag.
“Andrea, please give him a coke, and let him go. Believe me he will leave with or without our help.”
The Doc turned her gaze towards me. “The pills will keep you from collapsing, but you need more time in bed and a lot more fluids. The worst dehydration I have seen since Haiti. Come on swallow the damn pills. Jackson you really need to come in for a complete physical. It has been years. I still get all my books from your store. Lynn is great. Orders what I need and drops ‘em off here for me. You are lucky to have her. Your store is a great asset to the community.”
“Thanks Doc. Sorry I have to run.” I winced as the thing connecting me to the plasma bag was removed.
“Unexpected visit from my daughter.”
“Your daughter? You haven’t seen her in years and she gets to see you like this? I think you should have rescheduled.”
I confess to wondering how she knew when I had seen my daughter last, but then remembered Lynn brought her books. She knew all my dirt I bet.
“Wasn’t my call. Listen I really must go. Pay you later?”
The Doc waved me off. “Trade for books. Just come in for a follow up. Two days. I will schedule you in and call you with the appointment. You are a mess.”
The doctor and the nurse both looked at me like you would a poorly behaved dog you were overly fond of.
“Thanks.” I stood up with great difficulty, attempted unsuccessfully to navigate the door without incident. The plasma bag stand went down.
“I meant to do that.” I kept moving, as inertia was one of my few friends right now. I felt better but….
“See you day after tomorrow Jackson!”
Nice people. I was late.
“Poor thing”, said the nurse once he was out of earshot.
“I just hope he doesn’t try to kill himself again. This time he’ll probably succeed.” The doctor was looking at records even as she mused. The next patient was waiting, after all.
“I don’t think he did.” Andrea countered. “Believe me if Atticus Jackson wanted to take his life, he could do it. It was an accident. A binge gone awry.”