Jacaranda Season: Literary Crime Flash Fiction By Blair Kroeber
Blair Kroeber, author of Jacaranda Season, is a writer and producer of unscripted television based in the Southland.
The old woman’s voice quavered as she answered the phone. “Hello?” Right from the get-go, she sounded foggy, bewildered.
Tryst replied in her very best Susie Good Girl voice. “Ramona? Am I speaking with Ramona Vasquez?”
“Thanks for taking my call. We’ve been trying to reach you, last couple days.” Tryst was lying slouched in an aluminum-framed lawn chair on the third-floor balcony of her rathole apartment, her iPhone 7 arrayed on an overturned milk crate beside her, the corded headset stretched to full extension. She had kicked her bare feet onto the balcony railing, and she inspected them as she spoke. Her piggies, a friggin’ horror show, looked like the toes of an old woman just prior to death–the heels thick with callouses, the nails striated and gross. With every salon in the county closed on account of the lockdown, her hooves were screaming for a pedi.
“I work for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. I’ve been drafted as what’s called a ‘contact tracer’.”
“Let me introduce myself, can I? My name is Meredith,” Tryst said, pitching her voice loud, pausing between words so the old biddy could follow along. “I work for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. I’ve been drafted as what’s called a ‘contact tracer’.”
It was horseshit, of course. Every syllable.
Tryst was no contact tracer, and she most definitely wasn’t employed by the County of Los Angeles.
In truth, she had spent the opening weeks of the quarantine watching the social fabric begin to fray around the edges, and per her nature, she had sensed opportunity, a climate ripe for vishing. So she’d rejiggered one of her well-worn scams, updating it for the historic cultural moment.
Ponying up for a one-month subscription to the Yellow Pages online directory, she had begun dialing her fellow Angelenos at random. Invariably, the only people who answered the unrecognized calls were the gray-hairs, generally the most credulous ones. And when they did answer, Tryst would launch into her spiel, spooning out the honey, discoursing about how she had been engaged by the county to help track the progress of the virus.
We have reason to suspect, she would say, that one of your recent contacts–a friend, maybe, or a loved one–has contracted the virus. We believe you may be at risk. Mind answering a few questions? It’s in the interest of public health.
Together, she would tell them, we can beat this virus.
The goal here: to get them talking, of course. You wanted to keep them engaged until you cadged something valuable–a Social Security or Medicare number, possibly even a savings account passcode.
“Have you heard this term, ‘contact tracer’?” Tryst said now, idly reaching out to probe at the overlong nail of her baby toe. “Are you familiar with the concept?”
That quivery sound shook through the old woman’s voice again. “Yes, I read about it in the paper.”
“Right on, there ya go.” Tryst rocked in her seat, delighted. An easy dupe? Sounded like it.
Great news, because she needed to notch some digits in her checking account balance.
Far below her at street-level, the jacaranda trees glowed a vivid purple. Weeks into their spring bloom, they looked so electrically alive, and yet they were already dying, their branches drooping, the blossoms starting to wither. As Tryst observed from her aerie, an evening breeze plucked loose several flowers and scattered them across the blacktop.
“You’re familiar with our purpose, then,” Tryst said, “so I’ll cut to the chase. I’m sorry to say, Ramona, we believe you’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus.”
The novel coronavirus. Tryst had done her homework, combing the web, vacuuming up the most legit-sounding jargon.
But before she could proceed any further, the old woman cut in. “Yes, my husband had the illness. He passed it to me, I’m certain.”
Tryst went dumb.
Her lips twitched, and her brain scrambled.
Here was a first: She hadn’t yet encountered a response like this. Up till now, none of her marks had claimed to have the virus. Very much the opposite.
As Tryst groped for her next words, Ramona resumed speaking. “I should tell you, too: My husband, he passed away last night.”
Tryst felt her guts cinch.
The old lady’s voice came again: “But he’s here still. His remains, I mean.”
“In your house, you’re saying?”
“In our apartment, yes. I tried calling the medical center, but there’s no one answering.” A half-pause of consideration. “Maybe I shouldn’t even bother the hospital with this?” Her voice going vague and disoriented. “Is it better to phone someone else instead?”
Tryst’s throat flexed involuntarily, and for an instant she thought she was choking.
“I’m just not sure what to do,” Ramona Vasquez said. “I’ve been sitting with him all afternoon.” A lingering silence, and then: “He’s making the room cold.”
Tryst felt heat pooling in her cheeks. A sense of desolation teemed over her.
“I want to protect folks from this virus, believe me,” the old woman said, “so I’ll give you whatever information you need. Shall I confirm the spelling of my name? Maybe you want my address?” Her voice hitched with embarrassment. “Actually, you probably have all that, don’t you? It’s right on your computer, I’ll bet. Well, then tell me what you need. Tell me what I can do to help.”
Tryst swallowed hard. Dinged off-center, she groped for some official-sounding follow-up question. “What is your, um… what is your primary source of income, may I ask?”
“My husband and I, we had a stall in the Flower District, right in the mega-mart. When they announced the lockdown, the entire market closed. Gus had to lug home our inventory, three days-worth. All those flowers–gerberas and carnations and mums–they’re still here in our unit. But the water’s gone stagnant. Everything’s wilting. The smell… you can’t imagine. It’s making me nauseous. I tried to get the neighbor boy to lug this rot to the garbage chute, but he’s afraid to step inside our apartment.”
Tryst’s palms had gone muggy, and she rubbed them along the denim of her shorts.
“I’d cart it away myself,” Ramona said, “except I feel so wretched. The fever hasn’t gotten bad, not yet, not for me. But the muscles aches are too much. Feels like my bones are going to rattle apart. Can you maybe send someone to collect my husband? Or can you transfer me to someone who can?” Her tone rose to a weird falsetto. “The smell… either it’s him or the flowers, but it’s becoming unbearable.”
Never before had Tryst lost her taste for a hustle, but it flickered away now. One minute she was fully committed, and the next her will had evaporated.
“Hello? You still there?” Ramona spoke into the silence.
But Tryst was groping for her handset.
She dapped her finger against the red bead on her phone screen–END.
The woman’s voice cut out.
The line ticked dead.
Tryst clambered afoot, a fresh syrup of wind eddying across the balcony, the coolness of it prickling pebbles along the flesh of her calves and feet. Looming there, utterly alone, she felt skewered-open, exposed. She wouldn’t be notching digits this evening. The notion, in fact, seemed suddenly idiotic.
Instead she lingered, puzzling over her course.
Gradually she lowered back onto the lawn chair, thumbed open the search browser on her device and punched in terms. Mortuaries, Los Angeles. Surely someone, she figured, knew the protocol for a situation like Ramona’s. Tryst would locate them. Hell, pay them, even. She would do what she could for the poor woman, this bereaved widow.
Another surge of breeze moved down the block, sending jacaranda blossoms drizzling onto car windshields. As evening edged toward night, they pattered onto the sidewalk and continued their decay.
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