There are only a few scenes more beautiful and tranquil than a forest of live oaks. They are not like the jungle, crowded with thick tangles of foliage that slap you in the face as you walk by. That mattered to Aaron Miller.
Even forty years later, Aaron was afraid of jungles.
The ground around live oaks is mostly bare. The trees give each other plenty of space. With massive trunks rising up from the earth, often several feet in diameter, limbs as thick as trees themselves. Sprawling outward the limbs mingle with the branches of other live oaks forming an intricate network of curves and arches. Spanish moss hangs from almost every bough, whispering when gentle breezes blow.
A hundred years ago, the place where Aaron Miller lived was just such a forest, splendid and majestic, untouched by man.
Aaron thought about all this during his quiet time that morning. Maybe it was the picture he had seen the day before, taken some sixty years ago. A black and white photograph of a simple farmhouse, built between two of the largest trees in the forest. The house almost seemed to belong there, resting in the forest’s shade, enjoying its protection.
Today, that farmhouse stood where it always had. But a few more rooms had been added. The biggest addition housed pool tables, video games, pinball machines and a public restroom. Another served as a general store where any number of woodsy things could be bought. Citronella candles and mosquito spray, fuel for a Coleman stove, bags of ice.
From that sixty year mark to the present, more than half the original oak trees were gone, the majority cut down to make room for trailer hookup sites and bumpy dirt roads. All of this to create Bentley’s Trailer Park & Campground.
Aaron was the handyman at Bentley’s, lived in a storage room just across the way from the main house. Mr. Bentley only docked his pay a hundred-and-fifty dollars a month for the privilege.
“Aaron, you out and about yet?” It was Sue Kendall, she managed the place. The black and white photograph Aaron had seen of the farmhouse hung on the wall behind her desk.
Aaron looked up at the clock hanging on the block wall of his storage room. Sue knew better than to bother him yet. He got up and took the walkie-talkie off the charger. “Not yet, Sue. It’s only 7:50. I still got ten minutes.”
“I know, but this fellow’s in a hurry to check out of here.” Normally Sue handled checkouts on her own. He’d go out to the site later on, straighten things up, if needed. “They need their LP tank filled up,” she said. “He just paid me. He’s heading to the big tank out front. Can you meet him there…now?”
“Suppose I can.” He clipped the walkie-talkie to his belt, let out a sigh and stretched his back muscles. He’d awakened just after sunrise, as always. Slept pretty well; these days that wasn’t a given. He had the normal aches that came with age but, in recent months, he’d begun to experience some new pains from old war wounds. Wasn’t sure why they started up again. Hurt like mad right after the war. Then for years, it was like they’d just faded to the margins.
Sleeping good every night might go better if Aaron could afford a decent bed. He looked over at what he slept in, wasn’t much more than a military cot. But it was way nicer than sleeping in cardboard boxes and underneath highway overpasses. He did enough of that years back.
Aaron walked over to his favorite and only armchair, closed his Bible then went back to the workbench and unplugged the battery chargers for his tools. He glanced at the coffee pot, made sure it was off, collected his tools and headed out the door. Not ten steps away sat his primary means of transportation inside the park, a beat-up golf cart parked under a palmetto palm.
As he rode toward the propane tank, he glanced at the clipboard he’d left on the front seat. That’s right, today he had to take down all the Halloween decorations. He didn’t mind that too much; he was tired of looking at them. It was the second item on the list he didn’t much like.
Sort out and set up all the Christmas decorations.
Seemed way too early to him. Maybe it made sense for folks that lived up north where the weather was cold. Some places had even snowed already. But in Florida in the first week of November, it was still getting into the low eighties some days.
He pulled up to the cyclone fence surrounding the propane tank, saw a man in a blue shirt about his own age standing by a minivan, a pop-up camper hitched to the bumper. He’d recognized him; he and his wife had spent two nights in Lot 14. “Heading out already?” Aaron said, as he got out of his cart. The man handed him his ticket, proving he’d paid the bill. Aaron lifted his propane tank and walked to the gate. Aaron glanced at their pop-up. It looked pretty new, had a nice air conditioner on the roof. He’d lived in a tent a few years back. Would have felt like a king to have a pop-up then, especially one with A/C. “So you folks retired?”
“Almost,” the man said. His cell phone started vibrating. “Excuse me.” He flipped the lid, read a text and started typing a reply.
Aaron finished filling the tank, disconnected it and shut the big tank down. He looked back at the man, his face still glued to his phone. Aaron always felt awkward at times like this, didn’t know how much small talk was appropriate. Some folks liked it, some acted like they had better things to do than talk with the help. “I’ll just set this back in its stand there up by the hitch,” he said. The man nodded, kept texting away.
Aaron had never texted anyone, didn’t even own a cell phone. Couldn’t afford one. Really, who’d be calling him anyway? “You’re all set,” he said. The man nodded again.
As soon as Aaron got in the golf cart, the walkie-talkie squawked. “Aaron, you still on that LP?” Aaron waved at the man in the minivan as he pulled out of the park. “Just finished, what’s up?”
“Need you to get back to that young couple moved in here a month ago, but quick. Before someone calls 911.”
“That’s the one. Got a call there’s all kinds of yelling and screaming going on inside their trailer. Can you get back there right away? I don’t want to scare off all the temps in here, make ‘em think this park is full of low-lifes.”
“This park is full of low-lifes.” Aaron heard Sue’s cousin in the background. “That’s all we got in here.”
“Now quit, Bobby.” It was Sue, yelling back. “Don’t mind him, Aaron.”
“On my way, Sue.” Among his many duties, somehow Aaron was expected to also serve as the park’s security guard.
He knew all about that young couple in Lot 31. Her name was Heather, if he recalled. Had a big friendly dog, mostly golden retriever. He thought about her as the golf cart sped down the main road through the park. He’d been to Lot 31 twice over the last month; once to fix the lock, the other time for a busted screen. On his last visit a week ago, he saw a red mark across the side of her face, like she’d recently been slapped. Her boyfriend was nowhere in sight.
Before Aaron left, he’d asked if she was okay, and she insisted she had just tripped over a big oak root nearby, fell flat on her face. Aaron didn’t buy it. She was way too nervous. If there was one thing he couldn’t abide it was a coward that hit women. Heather couldn’t be more than sixteen or seventeen, had no business being shacked up with that young man. He looked to be around twenty. Long dark hair, tall, wore baggy jeans pulled down halfway to his knees.
Aaron turned off the paved road onto the dirt path that led to the trailer. Mr. Bentley had about twenty of these trailers set up in the park. Income properties he called them. Some vintage Airstreams and Fleetwoods and a few old twelve-wides. Aaron’s plan was to wait one more year before going on Social Security, then he could afford to rent one, move out of that musty storage room. Had his eye on this nifty little red one.
He heard a loud noise, looked ahead and saw Heather’s boyfriend coming out of the trailer, slamming the door behind him. He got in a blue souped-up Honda Civic, revved up the engine, put it in gear and tore off, heading in Aaron’s direction. The speed limit was 15mph in the park. In seconds, he was up to thirty or forty. Aaron had to yank the golf cart off the path.
He shot an angry glance at the young man as he sped by. He replied with an even-angrier stare. Aaron followed the car as it raced through the park and peeled off down the main road. He was gonna kill somebody. Aaron released a pent-up sigh then turned back toward the trailer. The door hadn’t latched after the boy slammed it, and it now drifted open.
The poor girl, he thought.
He better not have hurt her.