"Kum Ba Yah"

By Peter Barlow

The place wasn’t much to look at. Short with white siding stuck on with all the care of an angry eight-year-old, it was clearly a double-wide set straight on the ground despite all best efforts to make it look like something better than what it was. The yard around it was well kept, the lawn freshly cut, flowers blooming in their beds. Maybe getting the place fixed up was out of budget, but then living on Amelia Island wasn’t cheap. Nowhere in coastal Florida was.

The golf cart I was riding in came to a stop at the foot of the walk to the front door. “Okay,” the driver said in a voice slow enough to convey all the apathy it needed to. “This is the one.”

“She in there?” I said.

“Man, she a hundred. She don’t go nowhere ‘cept to the store and I’s the one has to take her. Even the doctor come to her, she so old.”

I stepped out of the cart. “Thanks. I can walk back up to the front of the park. You don’t have to wait on me.”

The cart putted off in the direction we’d come from. The walk to the front door only showed off more disrepair. Paint that looked possibly fresh from the streets became more chipped and fraying with each step. The screen door was some 1x2’s nailed together with wire mesh stapled to the front. Trying not to break it, I knocked on the frame of the screen.

“Hello?” I said it as loud as I could to try and get through the door. “Grandma Wilson?”

As I stood there and waited for an answer I turned and looked at some of the other trailers nearby. All of them showed the same signs of minor disrepair, of tenants who seemed to have just given up and decided that the exterior meant only so much or couldn’t afford to do more with what little they had. I expected to see one or two sets of eyes looking out at me, but if any were they were being discreet about it.

I let a full sixty seconds pass before knocking again. “Grandma Wilson? You in there?” All I got back was the sound of the wind chimes on the porch across the street. I opened the screen door as gingerly as I could—it weighed less than most newspapers—and pounded on the inside door. On the third knock, the hinges separated from the door frame and the door fell inward, landing on the floor with a large thump. The first thing I noticed was the smell, like spoiled fruit multiplied by a factor of several dozen. I took a couple of steps back and sucked in as much fresh air as I could. Say what you will about these mobile homes, but they can keep the inside in and the outside out. I didn’t even need to go inside to know what the source of the smell was. She was a hundred, after all. After wondering how long it had been since anyone checked on her, I called for help.

By the time the police turned up, the stench started to fade a little. I leaned against a speed limit sign and waited for the cop to come take my statement. First he went inside the house wearing a surgical mask as if that would keep the smell out, and came out again gagging and fanning himself. Built like a linebacker though he was, he was as susceptible to the smell of death as anyone else. He had a brief word with the EMTs before finally coming in my direction. He looked paler than before he went inside the trailer, but his eyes told me that he was thinking hard about what to ask, harder than he should have had to. I got the impression that anything bigger than a parking ticket would be too difficult for him. “You’re the guy that found her?” he said.

I nodded.

“D’you see anything suspicious?”

The EMTs said that Grandma Wilson had been dead a while, a week maybe, maybe longer. I assumed that was part of the conversation between them and the cop; if it was, he’d forgotten it already or he was trying to be clever. “No,” I said.

“D’you know her?”

I shrugged. “Not really. She’s my grandmother, my father’s mother, but I fell out of touch with that side of the family when I was a kid.”

The pause before he spoke lasted a dozen seconds. “Uh-huh. And why’s that?”

It took willpower to not give a reply that involved an insult to his parentage. Going through my father’s issues about his inability to keep his pants on with anyone but my mother wasn’t happening anyway, at least not without my attorney present. “Isn’t this the part where you ask me for my statement?” I said, trying to point the conversation back in the right direction.

“Oh. Yeah.” Three seconds separated each word. “Got a clipboard for you.”

“You’re not holding a clipboard.”

He chewed the inside of his cheek and stared at me.

“That’ll be fine, Billy,” came a voice from behind me. “Go and make sure they get her loaded, okay?”

Billy nodded three or four times as if pondering each letter of the command separately, and then turned and went back to the ambulance. After watching him go for a second, I turned around to find another uniformed officer wearing cop shades. On him they looked excessively large.

“Officer Hegstrom,” the man said. “You’ll have to forgive Billy. Procedures may not be his thing but he comes in handy every weekend when we have bar fights to break up.”