Ortega Night

Excerpts from Ortega Night

Apart from those visits the only times we saw our neighbors was when we both were picking up the morning paper or happened to be coming or going at the same time. Then one night in late February about eleven o’clock I answered the doorbell to face Bernice. Loose strands escaped from her usually tightly coifed hair and hung at the side of her face calling attention to the small lines on her skin revealing her fifty plus years.

“Bernice. What’s wrong? Come on in.”

“No. No need to come in. I feel bad enough bothering you this late.”

“No bother at all.”

“I wondered if either of you happened to notice if George came home earlier.”
Neither of us had.

“He’s been down in the desert,” she continued. “He said he’d be back no later than eight o’clock. I told him I would probably go out to a movie. George isn’t much of a movie fan and I wanted to see a picture he would never sit through. When I got back twenty minutes or so ago he wasn’t home and there was no message on the answering machine. I thought maybe he’d come home and for some reason run out again. It simply isn’t like George not to keep in touch. I’m really worried.”

Paula, who had joined us standing in the doorway said, “Come on in.”

“Thanks, but I want to get back home in case George calls. Maybe he’s stranded somewhere and needs me to pick him up.” We watched her as she walked across our driveway to her house and shut her door behind her.

At twelve thirty the next afternoon just after we had finished our lunch Paula opened the living room blinds to let in more light and we saw a sheriff’s car stop in front of the Moss home. A female deputy accompanied by her male partner strode up and rang their door bell. Officialdom had come to call. I imagined they would not have cheering news for Bernice.

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I drifted over to where Bernice was talking to a tall willowy blue-eyed blonde whose name I learned was C.J. White, another one of George’s real estate colleagues. After making sure we were properly introduced, Bernice glanced toward the front door and said, “Would you please excuse me? I see more of my guests are leaving.”

C.J. answered, “Don’t let us stand in the way of your duty. Mr. Oxnard and I will get along just fine.”

She wasn’t the kind of woman who would tempt me, but that wasn’t to say C.J. wouldn’t attract many admiring stares in whatever crowd she found herself. She was somewhere between thirty-five and forty, all smiles and wore a little too much of what I guessed to be an expensive cologne. Throughout the few minutes we spoke she moved her body in a barely perceptible swaying motion toward then away from me as if she were offering something more than conversation and then revoking the offer. If I were involved in a real estate deal, I’d definitely want her in my corner or at least not on the other side. We talked about George: what a shame it was that he was taken away while still healthy and presumably happy.

I remembered hearing sometime in the past about the Medjool date palm. The fruit is meatier and softer than other varieties, and because of its softness it must be picked by hand rather than machine, a costly process that’s reflected in the price of the dates. The Medjool Motel, consisting of eighteen units arranged around a small swimming pool in a state of disrepair with five or six lounge chairs, plastic webbing either frayed or torn, didn’t live up to its name. If there were a Worst Western motel chain, the Medjool would be its flagship property.

I walked into the motel office. Behind the desk was the same person who had met Jim Slade at the Greenleaf Grill two days earlier. Morris ‘Mousy’ Sargo was a small sallow skinned man somewhere in his forties. His thinning black hair was slicked back, and his upper lip was adorned with a thin mustache that looked as if it had been drawn with a crayon and belonged to an earlier time. He was in the process of handing a room key to a couple who had just registered: a middle aged man with the blotched and bloated face of someone who shuns moderation and a slatternly woman with unkempt hair hanging to her shoulders. A quick glance at the new motel guests was enough to tell me that unencumbered by luggage, they wouldn’t be staying long. As they edged past me and out the door of the small office, I wondered how profitable renting rooms by the hour was for Mousy and the bankers.

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