Scapegoat by Douglas Leonard

Chapter 14– Cruising Schram’s Neighborhoods


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Chapter 14– Cruising Schram’s Neighborhoods

When he got a few blocks away, he wrote down the information he had memorized from Schram’s folder. Then he found Schram’s part of town--the south side. He drove down West 29th Street. Many of the houses were very large, obviously built as apartment houses because they were close together. Schram’s neighborhood around the 500 block was racially mixed. He saw Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern within a few minutes. He realized it was more complicated than that, for there were probably a dozen kinds of each: 57 varieties making up one Midwestern city neighborhood. Ethnic diversity is a good thing, but he felt self-conscious, a white guy cruising the neighborhood.

Fortunately he was unrecognizable. Plus he had learned something new. He knew where Schram lived. He now knew that his former patient had transformed himself into a wedge. No doubt the physical makeover added credibility to the psychological one. A sound mind in a sound body. Even in that single glance, Steele had seen that Schram looked completely different. His arms and legs, hands and fingers, were anything but bony and crooked. What used to be just skin stretched tightly over his skull--his face--had developed pliability and depth. He didn’t look spooky anymore. He looked almost attractive.

That made him spookier than ever in Steele’s mind.

Here it was, early Saturday afternoon, and Schram would be working until 9. If Steele was going to do anything, this was his opportunity. Schram would not expect a pre-emptive strike. Steele wanted to gain a tempo, as the chess players say. He had to seize the initiative.

Maybe he could save his own life. That was the point, wasn’t it? If he was wrong about Schram, he could apologize and buy him a box of chocolates. If he was right about Schram, he’d save himself. Or die trying. Others were at risk too. At present, in this situation, he seemed the only one who might be able to do something. He felt good that he had a chance to do something useful. He had not chosen this position or sought it. He just was in the right place at the right time. He would try to be the right person.

His colleagues would consider him paranoid, he knew. Any of the many psychological assessments he himself administered would conclude he was paranoid. All his fears would be called delusions. The problem with those tests, his colleagues, and everyone else he had talked to about his fears was that they all began with the assumption that the threats he reported were only perceived, not real. Further, they would deny the validity of Steele’s intuitions about Schram. Was he obsessed with unusual fears? Affirmative. Did he need to be right? Affirmative. Was he hoping to be a hero? Affirmative. Hero sounded better than victim. Even survivor sounded better than victim. But there he was, exposed, in his own discipline, a psychologist certifiably psychotic.

He couldn’t worry about it. He had too much to do. He would do whatever it took to protect himself and others. It seemed to him that to do so, he had to oppose Schram. He also had to oppose those who thought it best to watch and wait, hopeful that Schram had reformed during a prison stay. They were entitled to that ostrich approach. He was entitled to his. His former patient, the mixed-up kid with a temper, was now a grown man with strong skills and definite plans of his own.

As far as he could tell from the looks of the place, Schram had taken a room in a private apartment building, not in a half-way house staffed by a resident social worker. Apparently the state did not believe he required a facility with programs to help parolees. Steele had to agree with them. He doubted if anything could help Schram live peacefully with others on the outside. He thought about that as he drove his black Jetta around the block three or four times.

As long as he was out for information, Steele thought he’d cruise Schram’s old neighborhood, see if the Schram castle had mysteriously turned into ashes. Or maybe he’d just see Schram’s old lady burning in effigy in the front yard. Surely, Molly Schram had to be wearing the jersey with the 1 on it.

Steele’s hair felt stiff. He touched it as he stretched and glanced at it in the rearview mirror. It was plastered to his scalp, parted in the middle. It was an embarrassing get-up, but if he wanted to go incognito, this certainly did the trick. How recognizable was his black Jetta? He’d had it only a couple of years. Schram probably didn’t know about it, but Steele had to assume he did or soon would know about it.

After about 15 minutes he rolled into Schram’s neighborhood in Rosedale on the South Side, not that far from U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox play baseball. Everything looked a little more run down and, strangely, smaller than it had 4 years ago. He saw no newspaper poking out of the Schram newspaper box, no open garage, no lit window—was anybody home? He drove by and parked around the corner. He shut off the motor and sat there. He looked at himself in the mirror again. Wacky, but effective. He took seven cleansing breaths and did the same number of head rolls. He was ready.

The front door was closed up tight. He knocked loudly, despite the doorbell. He heard some movement. In a short time the door unlocked and opened. Standing there in her baby blue bathrobe was Molly Schram, looking much the way she looked when he visited here before—bleary eyed, lethargic. She was holding onto the door, squinting into Steele’s face.

“Hi, Mrs. Schram,” he said brightly. “I’m not sure you remember me. I’m Wesley Kawalski.” The words flowed off his tongue, and he felt his confidence rise. “Richard and I used to hang out after school. I know he had some trouble with the law, did time. But I hear he’s out now.” He looked at her expectantly.

“He’s out. He spent a couple of weeks at home here. But now he’s got a job and his own apartment.”

“Good for him. If you have his number, I could call him.”

“I hope you won’t put him up to more mischief,” she said, turning and walking away from him. “I’ve got his number somewhere. Don’t mind the mess.”

He stepped inside. He expected worse. Someone had taken out the garbage and done the dishes. “Have Connie and Petula been home?”

Molly Schram seemed surprised he knew them. “Petula checks in at least once a week. She helps me out. Even Connie stopped by to visit when Richard was here last week. Otherwise, she’s too busy for the likes of us.” He followed her into the dining room where she pawed through some papers. “Here it is.”

Steele took a pen from the table and wrote the phone number on a scrap of paper. “Have you called him at this number yet?”

“No, not yet. I don’t have a phone right now,” she said. She seemed amused. There was something attractive about her, almost. She was letting him know she liked him, and he was falling for it.

“Have you visited his new place?”

“Too far for me to walk.”

“Richard have wheels?”

“He took a cab when he left. He’ll be back tomorrow. Could you do me a favor as long as you’re here?”

“I want to make a nice chicken dinner tomorrow afternoon for Petula and Richard. I could use a bottle of white wine. Nothing fancy.”

“I don’t know…”

She pressed a bill into his hand. “Just go down to the Jewel or even Grain and Grape.”

He had no intention of feeding a wino’s habit. Within a few minutes, though, he decided to do it. She had helped him. He walked quickly to his car and drove to Jewel where he picked up a gallon of Gallo zinfandel and then, because he had never purchased them before, a pack of cigarettes. He knew she smoked. Would she care if they were Vantage?

Returning, he parked around the corner again and carried the brown sack up to the front door. When she opened the door, he gave her the bag and a $5 bill. Then he said goodbye. She asked him to stay and have a sip of wine with her. He apologized profusely that he could not. Then she smiled and waved and said thank you and goodbye repeatedly until he had turned the corner. Apparently she did not wonder why his car was not parked right in front of the house. Apparently she did not wonder why he gave her back her $5 bill. She was too busy being thrilled how well the beautiful young man had treated her.

He considered that she had never used his name nor wrote it down. Before driving away, he checked the phone number Molly Schram gave him with the phone number Benny Moore of Goodwill had given him. The numbers were different. He’d check it out, for sure, but it seemed that Schram didn’t want his own mother to reach him.
He drove to Southgate Mall and rolled slowly behind a couple of the big-box stores. He was looking, in fact, for a big box with a computer company’s logo on it. He found two Hewlett-Packard boxes behind Best Buy, one for a computer and one for a printer. Perfect. He tossed them in his trunk.

Then he drove another half mile to a uniform store. He’d driven by it before, wondered why it was so big. He parked. He took off his sunglasses and red sweat band. Inside the store he saw rack after rack of smocks for medical workers. Scrubs. Beyond them were racks of unisex pants with drawstrings. The pants and the shirts went from S to XXXXL. There were shoes up to men’s size 18. Who shopped here anyhow? Oh, yeah. I do, he thought. He found a person dumping a giant box of white socks in a bin. He asked her a question. She directed him to the other side of the store, a department called Professional Man. That described him perfectly, he thought.

He soon found a pair of permanent pressed cuffed brown khaki pants in his size, and a short-sleeved wrinkle-free brown shirt with double front flap pockets. Then he found a pair of brown leather lace-up shoes, size 10. He had to buy three pairs of argyle socks to get one pair. Last he found a brown cap that fit him comfortably. About $55 for the whole outfit.

After he paid for it, he carried it all back to the changing room. He had to wrinkle the wrinkle-free clothes and sit on them to get the folds out of them so they didn’t look brand new. He needed to resemble a UPS man. He dressed and looked in the mirror. He thought he looked very much the man in brown. Instant trustworthiness.

It occurred to him as he went back to his car that his performances were already enough for one day. He’d donned a disguise just in case he bumped into Schram, and good thing too. The disguise was less suited to fool Benny Moore, manager of Goodwill Industries, but it had served well enough. He had to credit some smooth talking on his part for pulling that off. When Moore mentioned to Schram that a punky eccentric named Aaron Peterson wanted to interview him, Schram would never guess that Peterson was his former therapist Andrew Steele in disguise.

His disguise had done its job with Schram’s mother too. She was unlikely to remember his alias Wesley Kawalski, and even if she did, Schram would never guess that Kawalski was his former therapist in disguise.

And now here he was, a reasonable facsimile of a United Parcel Service man. He still had flattened hair, parted in the middle, but it was now hidden beneath the brown cap. What can Brown do for you? Too bad he didn’t have a brown step van. He decided that his name would be John—as in John Brown--if he needed any name at all.

Steele went to an office supply store and bought a huge bag of Styrofoam pellets, a dispenser of 2” heavy Scotch tape, two UPS labels, and a small utility knife. He drove to the far end of a grocery store parking lot and went to work. He filled both Hewlett Packard boxes with the foam peanuts, cut away the old tape, and retaped the boxes neatly. He wanted them to look like they’d been sent from the factory. He licked the labels and put them on squarely. He printed Richard Schram’s name and address on both labels. He had a good hand. The boxes would do very well, he thought. He checked his watch. It was now 4 PM. He was hungry. He’d been going all day. He would eat afterward.

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