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Chapter 1: The Popsicle Tree

Cover of The Popsicle Tree

Chapter 1

“You think they’ll like them?” Jonathan asked as we left the apartment with a shopping bag full of presents.

“Of course they will,” I said. “We have excellent taste.”

“In men, anyway,” he replied, grinning. “At least I do. I’m not so sure about you.”

“Would this be Bid for Reassurance number 1,209?” I asked.

We were on our way to our friends Tim and Phil’s apartment, where we were invited for an impromptu ‘Welcome Back’ gathering the day after our return from two weeks in New York. It was pretty short notice, and Jonathan had to scurry to get the presents wrapped, but we were anxious to see everyone again—‘everyone’ in this case being Tim and Phil, Bob and Mario, and Jared and Jake, who formed our inner circle of friends.

They’d said five o’clock, since it was a Sunday and everyone had to work the next day—including me, unfortunately—and to my surprise we arrived exactly on time.

Tim, Phil, Jake, and Jared were already there, and you’d think we hadn’t seen each other in two years rather than two weeks. Jonathan discreetly put the shopping bag on the floor next to the door before our exchange of bear hugs with everyone. Phil excused himself and went into the kitchen, returning with a Coke for Jonathan and a Manhattan for me. It was good to be home.

We’d just gotten seated when Bob and Mario arrived. Since Bob owned our favorite bar, Ramón’s, and Mario managed Venture, another bar, I realized their being there had involved some serious juggling of schedules, and I appreciated it. As soon as Tim got their drinks and we’d exchanged a toast to long-lost friends, Jonathan couldn’t wait any longer. He got up and went to the shopping bag.

“We got you all something from New York,” he said. Like Santa Claus with a bag full of toys, he handed out the gifts—one each for Tim and Phil and for Bob and Mario, and separate gifts for Jake and Jared, since they did not live together.

They all expressed surprise and thanks as they took the gifts, and Jonathan, like a little kid, oversaw the opening of each gift in turn. For Jake, a contractor by trade, we’d found a 1923 Sears & Roebuck catalog which featured at least a dozen pages of entire homes you could buy in kit form—a three bedroom cottage went for around $1,000. Jonathan had put a little tab in the catalog to mark the pages.

“Jonathan thought you could get some ideas from them,” I said, and Jake looked at both of us and grinned.

“This is great, guys. Thank you.” And he pulled Jonathan down to him and gave him another hug.

Don’t you wish you’d given it to him? one of my mind voices asked. I recognized it immediately as my crotch.

Shame, Dick Hardesty! Shame! my saintly conscience replied.

Yeah, yeah…whatever.

For Jared, who taught Russian Literature at a small college about an hour north of the city, we’d found an old book of Russian folk tales in the original Russian.

Jared was visibly impressed. He turned through the pages, then looked from Jonathan to me and said: “Where did you ever find this?”

“In a little used book store in Greenwich Village,” Jonathan said. “That’s where we got Jake’s catalog, too.”

Bob and Mario had been renovating a great old Victorian house, and we’d gotten them a pair of heavy glass candle holders we thought would go well on their mantle or dining room table.

“They’re beautiful,” Bob exclaimed, admiring the candlewick pattern.

“We got them at Macy’s,” Jonathan announced happily.

“Well, they’re perfect, and we thank you,” Mario said.

“You’re welcome,” Jonathan said, beaming.

Since Tim and Phil collected exotic tropical fish and had initiated Jonathan’s interest in them, we had picked out a large coffee-table photo book from the gift store of the New York Aquarium.

“Thank you, Jonathan. Thank you Dick,” Tim said. “Of course you realize we will now have to file for bankruptcy after we go out and get all these fish.”

His Santa Claus duties finished, Jonathan came back and sat beside me.

“Now,” Jared said, “tell us all about your trip.”

And we did.

* * *

It was a wonderful evening. As usual there was enough food for a small army, and Jake had brought a Bavarian chocolate cake for dessert, as if any of us really needed it after all the other food.

We sat around talking and laughing until just before ten, when Jared said he’d better get started on the drive back to Carrington. He’d left his car at Jake’s, so they left together, followed shortly by Bob and Mario, leaving just Jonathan and me with Tim and Phil. Jonathan wanted to help Tim with the dishes, but Tim refused with thanks, and we left at about 10:30, heading for home and the prospect of work in the morning.

* * *

I spent the entire morning at work returning calls left on the answering machine, and setting up appointments with prospective clients, one of whom was a George Cramer, owner of Cramer Motors, a used car lot in The Central, the business hub of the gay community. He didn’t go into detail but I arranged to meet him at his lot at 2:30 that afternoon. A couple of checks had come in with the accumulated mail, so I decided to take a late lunch and run them to the bank on my way to The Central.

Jonathan had been saving money to buy his own car for going to and from work, and we’d planned that I would sell him—he insisted—the car we now had and I’d get a new “family” car. I thought as long as I’d be at Cramer’s lot, I might look around to see what was available. Being in The Central, a large percentage of the lot’s customers were from the community and I knew a couple of people who had bought cars there and been satisfied.

I parked on the street in front of the lot, and the minute I walked onto the lot itself and passed the first row of cars, I was approached by a guy who did the term “tall, dark, and handsome” a great disservice. Since he was wearing a name tag—‘Clint’—I gathered he was one of the salesmen, and wondered what in the world he was doing selling used cars when he could be gracing the cover of any men’s magazine in the country.

“Hi,” he said, cramming more charm into one syllable than it was meant to hold, and giving me a smile that made me wish I’d brought my sunglasses. “I’m Clint. See anything you like?”

Don’t go there, I warned my crotch before it could say anything.

I was aware that the question was one he undoubtedly used on every male gay prospective customer.

“Perhaps…” Damn, that was my crotch talking out loud, not me! “…in a few minutes,” I hastened to add. “I’m looking for Mr. Cramer right now.”

“Sure,” he said, still smiling. “He’s in the office. Just let me know when I can be of some help, Mr. …?” He held out his hand.

“Hardesty,” I said. “Dick Hardesty.”

Yeah, like you had to include your first name! one of my mind voices—the one in charge of being a pain in the ass—snorted.

“And I’ll do that,” I added as I took his hand. There was just the slightest hint of an extra squeeze before he released it. Damn, this guy was good!

Leaving Clint however reluctantly, I made my way to the office. There were two empty desks, and three doors other than the entrance, two of which were closed. Through the third door I could see a very large man seated behind an equally large desk, who looked up as I approached.

“Mr. Cramer?” I asked.

“Come in!” he said jovially, getting up from his chair and extending his hand.

“Dick Hardesty,” I said as I took it.

“Have a seat, please,” he said as he walked around me to close the door, then returned to his chair.

“Let me say first off that I am not a bigot,” he said, apparently by way of getting right to whatever point he was trying to make. “A man’s sexual orientation is his own private business and no one else’s. I don’t judge a man by who he sleeps with.”

And who might we be talking about, here? I wondered. Me, Clint, or…?

“I’ve got one straight salesman,” he continued, “Dean Arbuckle, and I suspect he is ripping me off, though I can’t prove it. I don’t want you to think I suspect him just because he’s straight.” I smiled, both inside and out. Ah, the world, it is a’changin’, I thought.

“And you have no other straight employees?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Just one of my mechanics and my niece, Judi, my brother’s daughter. She’s the bookkeeper.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Come,” Cramer said, and a rather mousy young woman entered. She seemed startled when she saw me.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said to Cramer. “I didn’t know you were busy.” She hastily laid a manila folder on Cramer’s desk. “Excuse me,” she said and, without ever having looked directly at me, she left.

Judi, I assumed. No wedding ring.

Let’s see…straight salesman maybe ripping off the boss + single female bookkeeper…. Gee, ya ’spose?

Well, obviously the possible connection went right over Cramer’s head; she was his niece, after all. I looked out the window into the lot.

“How many salesmen do you have?” I asked.

“Six,” he said. “There’s a photo of all of us on the wall right by the door as you go out. Dean’s the third from the left, brown tie. They rotate days and hours—we’re open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Dean is off today, which is why I was anxious to talk to you without his being around.”

“And what makes you think Arbuckle’s ripping you off?” I asked.

“Because things just don’t add up. I mean, the figures do, I’ve gone over the books very carefully, but starting about two months after Arbuckle was hired, our profits have been noticeably and consistently down in ratio to our sales. Clint has only worked here about a month, and sales have really increased since he’s been here, but the profit margin is still down. Jerry has been with me since we opened, and the rest have worked here for quite a while. No problems until Dean came along, so I’m sure it’s him. I just want to find out how he’s doing it.”

“Have you spoken to your niece about it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No. Before I hired Judi to do the books, I did them all myself and I know exactly how much profit we should make on every sale. It’s been steady for years. And as I said, I just went over them all very carefully in case Judi might have missed something or made some sort of mistake, and all the ‘i’s are dotted and all the ‘t’s crossed. And I didn’t want to stress her…she’s kind of fragile.”

He paused, looking at me, then said: “So will you look into it? See what you can find out?”

“I’ll do my best,” I said, “though I can’t guarantee….”

“I understand that,” he said, “but you have a pretty good reputation, from what I understand. What percentage of your cases would you say you solve?”

Good question! No one’s ever asked me that before. I thought a minute. “Most of them,” I said. I then told him my rates.

“Fair enough,” he said. “It’s a lot less than I figure I’ve been losing lately. When can you start?”

“I just got back from vacation,” I said, “so my calendar’s clear for the moment. I brought a contract with me, and I’ll leave it with you to look over and sign. You can mail it to my office.”

“No, no,” he said. “I don’t want to waste any time. I’ll sign it now.”

I took out the contract and gave it to him. He read it over quickly, then took out a pen and signed. I signed it too, and he immediately ran a copy on the copy machine next to his desk. When everything was official, I got up and extended my hand, which he rose to take.

“I’ll start on it tomorrow,” I said, then added: “I don’t want to be seen around here too often. I’ll keep you posted by phone, if that’s all right.”

“Fine,” he said. “I’m here every day. Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will,” I said.

I left his office and stopped by the framed photo next to the front door, looking carefully at the third guy from the left in the brown tie. Very nice looking as, with the probable exception of George Cramer, were they all. I had a feeling, given the lot’s location and clientele, it wasn’t just a coincidence.

Clint saw me as I came out of the office and he hurried over. I noticed another salesman standing by a Volkswagen van, talking with two women.

“So what can I show you?” Clint asked, teeth and eyes sparkling.

Don’t ask me that! I thought.

“I’m looking for a good, inexpensive car for my lover,” I said, rather hoping to see disappointment reflected in his face when I said the word ‘lover’. There was none. Figures.

“I’ve got just what you want,” he said. Damn! “Right over here….”

* * *

By the time I was able to pull myself away from Clint after looking at almost every car on the lot and promising to bring Jonathan by soon to look at one or two, it was nearly four o’clock—too late to return to the office and too close to the time Jonathan got off work to try to drive out and pick him up. But I remembered he had given me a grocery list before he left for work, and decided to tend to that on my way home.

When I walked into the apartment, arms loaded with grocery bags, Jonathan was already home. He took one of the bags from me as we went into the kitchen.

“You’re home early,” I said, setting my bags on the counter and exchanging our evening hug.

“Yeah,” Jonathan said, turning his attention to putting the groceries away. “Kyle from work gave me a ride home. Oh, and we’ve got new neighbors!”

“We do?” I asked. “When did that happen?”

“Apparently that couple upstairs moved out while we were gone,” he said. “This new one’s a single mom—her name’s Carlene DeNuncio and I’m pretty sure she’s a family member—and she’s got the cutest little boy; his name’s Kelly and he’s four. They live right above us.”

“You met them, I gather,” I said.

“They were coming in the same time I was,” he said over his shoulder as he opened the refrigerator door. “She’s really nice. Kelly…well, if you think I talk a lot sometimes, you should hear him! He was telling me all about his room and that he goes to school—day-care, actually his mom says—and he waved goodbye as they went on up the stairs.”

The minute he’d mentioned our new neighbor’s probably being gay and that she had a four-year-old son, I knew he’d be thinking of his own four-year-old nephew, Joshua, and wishing again that we could have kids.

“I sure wish we could have a kid,” he said, as if on cue. This was a recurring theme for Jonathan, even though he realized the biological and legal difficulties involved. I wasn’t sure whether having a four-year-old neighbor would give him a more realistic look at the problems inherent in raising kids, or if it would simply intensify his wanting one. I hoped for the former.

Our first full night at home after our trip (Saturday didn’t count, since we were busy unpacking and coming down from the travel and the entire vacation) was really nice, with just the two of us. We had dinner, watched some TV, and went to bed early—partly because Jonathan, while we were reminiscing about the trip, mentioned the very attentive—and very handsome—flight attendant on our return flight, suggested we might play a new game he called The Horny Passenger and The Accommodating Flight Attendant. Talk about the Friendly Skies…!

* * *

One of the first things I did when I got to the office Tuesday morning—after attending to my coffee/newspaper/crossword puzzle routine—was to look in the phone book for the address of one Dean Arbuckle. Since he’d been off the day before, I hoped he’d be at work. I took a chance and dialed the number. A woman answered.

“Is Mr. Arbuckle in?” I asked, hoping that he wasn’t—if he was, I’d just hang up.

In the background I could hear children arguing. There was a moment’s pause while the woman covered the mouthpiece and said something to the children, then came back on. “No, he’s at work. Can I help you with something?”

“No, thank you. I’ll try to reach him there. Good-bye,” and I hung up before she could ask anything else.

On a whim, I consulted the phone book again and wrote down the address, then looked for the number and address of Judi Cramer. There was no Judi Cramer listed, though there were two “J. Cramer”s. I wrote them both down. Since I didn’t know whether Judi worked every day or not, I didn’t try calling either number—if a woman answered I wouldn’t know if it was her or J. Cramer’s wife without asking, and I didn’t want to have it be her and then have to try to explain why I was calling.

Instead, I decided to take a drive out past Dean Arbuckle’s house, to see if there might be any immediately visible evidence indicating a lifestyle above what I might assume to be a normal used-car salesman’s means—whatever in hell that might be.

He lived, I saw from looking at the city map I keep in my desk, on the north side of town, near the river. It was a nice day for a drive, and I took my time.

The Arbuckles lived on a quiet residential street of neatly-kept homes. The house I was looking for was much like its neighbors: fake shutters flanking the windows, a twin-dormer roof and a red-brick sidewalk to the front door. As I drove slowly past, I looked down the driveway to the neat two-car garage at the rear of the house, with a basketball hoop over the open double retractable door. The one side of the garage was empty: in the other I caught a glimpse of the grill and front end of what looked to be an expensive and obviously new sports car. I drove around the block and came back, approaching the house from the other direction. Sure enough, that’s what it was. A convertible, yet!

Well, it appeared that Dean Arbuckle must be an awfully good salesman to be able to afford a wife, a couple of kids, a nice house, and two cars. (I assumed he drove to work, which meant he had the second car with him. I wondered how new it was.)

On my way back to the office, I drove through The Central and down the alley behind Cramer Motors. Four cars were parked directly behind the office building; one a late-model Cadillac—Cramer’s, probably—a last-year’s model Chevy, an older station wagon, and a Volkswagen around three to five years old. I wondered if Cramer knew Arbuckle had a nice new car in his garage? I tended to doubt it.

* * *

That evening, as we sat watching the evening news before dinner, Jonathan, who had beat me home again—his friend Kyle at work apparently had a girlfriend living near us—said: “Would you mind if I asked Carlene down for coffee and cake after dinner? I don’t know if she has any friends around here, and I think you’d really like meeting her.”

I set my Manhattan on the coffee table and smiled at him. “…And Kelly?” I added. Sometimes I could read him like a book.

He looked a little like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“Uh, well, yeah, of course. We could make it right after dinner since I imagine Kelly probably has to be in bed pretty early.”

“Sure, if you’d like,” I said.

“Great! I’ll run up and ask her, okay?” He said this even as he was getting up from the couch and putting his Coke down next to my Manhattan.

“Okay,” I said as he reached the door.

He was back within two minutes. “They’re just having dinner now,” he said, “but she said that would be nice. They’ll be down around seven.”

Sitting back down, he picked up his Coke.

“Cake?” I said, taking up where we’d left off. “We have cake?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “There’s a new bakery right near work, and we don’t have cake very often, so I thought…”

Uh huh. “Well, I’m glad you did,” I said, “especially since kids love cake.”

He blushed. “That transparent, huh?” he asked.

I just nodded and smiled.

“So I like kids!” he said, and I reached around his shoulders with my free arm and pulled him toward me. “I know, Babe,” I said.

The news ended and I followed him into the kitchen to set the table while he finished getting dinner ready.

At exactly seven o’clock, as I was drying the last plate and putting it in the cupboard, there was a knock at the door and Jonathan hurried to open it.

“Hi, Carlene,” he said. “Hi, Kelly! Come on in.”

I came into the living room just as Jonathan was gesturing a rather pretty young woman and a curly-haired little boy toward the couch. The boy was carrying a toy dump truck.

“Hi, Carlene,” I said, “I’m Dick.”

She extended her hand and smiled, which made her even more attractive.

“It’s nice to meet you, Dick.”

“And you,” I said to the boy, “are Kelly.” I extended my hand and, after a quick look at his mother, he let the truck fall to the floor and took it and we shook hands.

Carlene sat down, and Kelly, leaving his truck on the floor, scrambled up beside her, leaning against her shoulder and looking all around.

“Is this your house?” he asked.

“Yes it is,” Jonathan said.

“Do you have a little boy?”

Jonathan gave me a…shall we say ‘significant’…look before turning to Kelly and saying: “No, I’m sorry, we don’t.”

You’re in for it now, Hardesty, I knew.

* * *

Jonathan made a quick trip to the kitchen to check on the coffee, then returned and sat beside Kelly on the couch.

“Okay if I sit here?” he asked the boy.

“Sure!” Kelly said, immediately scooting off the couch to play with his dump truck and leaving Jonathan, Carlene, and me to get acquainted.

Carlene had moved to Carrington, where her sister lived, and where Jared taught at the college, about a year ago with her girlfriend. They’d been together since before Kelly was born. I gathered, from her reluctance to talk too much about it, that they had broken up very recently and she and Kelly had moved here. She’d found a job almost immediately, and had lived in a furnished apartment until she was able to buy a few basic pieces of furniture, then moved into our building. Kelly was enrolled in a day-care/pre-school run by a pair of lesbian sisters for the kids of gay parents. (Another significant look from Jonathan.)

When we adjourned to the kitchen, Kelly immediately spotted and headed for Jonathan’s fish tank.

“Look, Mommy! They got fishes!” he proclaimed, standing on tip-toe trying to touch the tank. Jonathan scooped him up easily and held him in one arm as he pointed out each fish by name. Carlene looked at me with a bemused smile, and I excused myself to go to the bedroom to retrieve an empty hard-cover suitcase to put on Kelly’s chair so he could reach the table.

* * *

They left shortly before eight, and we finished cleaning up the kitchen, then went into the living room to watch a little TV. Jonathan had been uncharacteristically quiet, and I was pretty sure I knew why.

“That was nice, wasn’t it?” Jonathan asked as we sat on the couch.

“Yeah,” I said and, before he had a chance to say it, I added: “And Kelly was very well-behaved. Except perhaps for bursting into tears when Carlene wouldn’t let him give the fish some of his cake. But Carlene must be exhausted by the end of the day. I suspect four-year-olds can be quite a handful.”

He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t a very happy look.

You’re a real wet blanket, Hardesty, a mind voice said disapprovingly, and I felt just mildly guilty for not being as enthusiastic as I’m sure Jonathan wanted me to be.

I was curious to know more about Carlene—whether she’d been married, who and where Kelly’s father was, about the breakup with her partner, which I gathered had not been a smooth one…of course none of it was any of my business, but that didn’t make me any the less curious.

* * *

I got up well before seven, managed to get out of bed without waking Jonathan, showered and dressed. I then woke him so he could get ready for work.

“How come you’re already dressed?” he asked sleepily, propping himself up on one arm.

“I want to get to Cramer Motors before it opens,” I said, “so I can see what sort of car a couple of people drive.”

“Why’s that?” he asked, throwing the sheet and covers aside.

I tried not to look at him: I knew if I did I might not make it out of the apartment.

“I think I just might do a little basic detective work. I’ll take the camera with me, too.”

“There isn’t any film in it,” he said. “I took all the film from our trip in to that photo place near work for developing, and I think the camera’s empty.”

He came over to give me a hug, and….

“Hey, watch it!” he said. “I’ve got to get to work, and so do you!”

I hate it when he’s right.

* * *

I parked close to the alley behind the lot, where I could watch the employees driving into the small parking area directly behind the office. Cramer’s (I assumed) Cadillac was already there. A few minutes later, another car pulled in from the other end of the alley—the late model Chevy I’d noticed before. I couldn’t tell who was driving until I saw Judi Cramer emerge. She did not go directly into the office’s back door, however, but stood there as if waiting for someone. Sure enough, a few seconds later, an older model Dodge station wagon passed me and turned into the alley. I recognized the driver as Dean Arbuckle. Even from my distance I could see Judi’s face light up.

Arbuckle got out of his car, walked over to her, glanced around to see that no one was looking (I was, of course, but he obviously didn’t see me) and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. She went to touch his arm, but he said something to her, and she went into the building. Arbuckle stayed outside and lit a cigarette, leaning his back against the building.

Damn! I wish I’d had anticipated that little scenario—it would have made a great photo if I’d have known it was coming, and if there’d been any film in the camera. Well, maybe it was a little morning ritual. I’d be back.

OK, that told me all I needed to know at the moment. When Arbuckle had finished his cigarette and gone into the office, I started the engine and drove down the alley behind the parked cars. I slowed down when I passed the Chevy and memorized the license number.

Since I had the camera with me, I decided to take another drive out to Arbuckle’s house, in hopes of getting a picture of his new sports car. I had to stop, of course, for film, and on a whim picked up a roll of low-light film along with the regular daylight roll.

When I got to the Arbuckle’s house, I saw a woman working on a flower bed beside the driveway. The garage door was indeed open, and the sports car was where I’d seen it before. I drove halfway around the block and parked. Not wanting to appear obvious about what I was doing, I put the camera in the glove compartment, locked it, and walked around the block to where the woman was still busily at work pulling blades of grass from between the flowers. She saw me as I approached, and when I got to the driveway I stopped, looking at the car in the garage as if I’d just noticed it.

“A beautiful car!” I said to the woman, who looked up and smiled.

“Isn’t it?” she said. “It’s my husband’s. He’ll let me ride in it, but he won’t let me drive it.”

I sighed. “I’ve always wanted one just like it,” I said, “but it’s way, way out of my price range. And it looks brand new, too.”

“It is,” she said proudly. “Just three weeks old! My husband is in the car business, and he was able to get it through his employer—sort of as a bonus for all the double shifts and overtime he puts in.”

I’m sure, I thought.

I stared at the car admiringly, making a mental note of the license number.

“Well,” I said, “your husband is a lucky man.” I paused just for a moment, then said: “It was nice talking with you,” and continued my walk back to my car.

When I got to the office, I called Bil—yeah, only one “l” for some reason— Dunham, my contact at the DMV, and asked him if he could check on the address of the owner of the Chevy, when the sports car was registered, and if it might have been owned previously. I sincerely doubted it, and as far as I knew Cramer dealt only in used cars.

He said he would and would get back to me within the hour.

I puttered around the office until, a little less than forty-five minutes later, Bil called back with the information. Judi’s address, it turned out, was less than three blocks from our apartment. And Arbuckle had registered his new car, purchased at City Imports, exactly three weeks ago.

Now, it’s possible George Cramer had a very good friend at City Imports who would be happy to give a hefty discount to one of Cramer’s employees, but it’s also possible that elephants could fly if they ever thought about it.

* * *

When I got home, I was rather surprised to see Carlene and Kelly in the living room with Jonathan. Kelly was on the floor playing with his dump truck, but both Carlene and Jonathan were not smiling.

Jonathan got up to give me a hug—still without a smile—and said: “I think Carlene needs your help.”

We went quickly over to her while Kelly made sounds like a dump truck. I saw she had a piece of paper in her hand.

“What’s the problem, Carlene?” I asked and she handed me the paper. On it was written three words: You’re dead, bitch!

Cover of The Popsicle Tree


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