Joe Surkiewicz

Almost Heaven

“I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Solved a life problem.”

“That makes me so happy. Fill me in.”

“That would be more along the lines of a confession.”

“All ears on this end.”

“It involved a man.”

“This has a familiar ring.”

“Not for long. This was not a regular man or the kind of man you would associate with me. This was a man who was part of a substrata.”

“A problem man.”

“To put it mildly.”

“Was he from West Virginia?”

“I refuse to characterize people on their origin. But, yes, since you ask.”

“You’re so close to Almost Heaven in your part of Appalachia. Easy guess.”

“I like West Virginians. Some very attractive, smart, educated folks.”

“But not all. Substrata.”

“You could say sub-substrata. I refuse to use the H-word, but it gives the flavor.”

“Inbred. Crude. Illiterate. What we used to call a hillbilly.”

“An offensive word. But you’re on the right track.”

“Did you meet this particular man during your official duties at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources?”

“Yes and no. I never met him. I saw him. A lot.”

“Description?”

“Thirtyish. Long stringy hair and a ZZ Top beard. Over two hundred pounds. Bib overalls. No shirt. Muck boots.”

“He’d follow you?”

“He’d show up a couple times a week, in town, on the job.”

“Did he do anything?”

“Watched me.”

“You ignored him?”

“At first. Then I thought, this is absurd. Confront him. Ask him what he’s doing. So I did.”

“And?”

“He walked away. It irritated me, so I took his goddamn picture with my phone. I made some discrete enquiries and finally found out who he was.”

“Do I need to know his name?”

“You don’t. The guy was, not sure the right word, ominous. Creepy. I got convinced that his big lurking presence, licking his lips, his hairy shoulders and bare arms, that he had nothing on under those filthy overalls.”

“You’d see him in the woods?”

“He’d just appear. Never said anything. Never stopped looking.”

“Just a wild guess, but did this guy have a record?”

“Sex crimes going back to juvenile. Peeping. Indecent exposure. Public masturbation.”

“Find out anything else?”

“Not much. Seasonal worker, brush hogging, lumberjacking, worked in this part of the state a lot. But I didn’t report the stalking.”

“Why not?”

“It’s hard enough being one of only three women rangers in western Maryland. Gotta protect the image. And I’d rather take care of my own problem.”

“You’re armed, right?”

“Nine millimeter Beretta. That’s why he never did anything but watch. But I had a feeling, a conviction really, it was only a matter of time.”

“So you got proactive?”

“Ever see a bear trap?”

“Nope.”

“Big steel cage eight feet long, three feet in diameter, solid steel on top and bottom, wire mesh on the sides, bars on each end like a jail cell. A bear smells the bait, goes in, gate closes, bear trapped.”

“Straightforward.”

“Bears are wary, it takes a while. But it’s awesome when it happens. Six hundred pounds, pissed off, throwing itself against the bars.”

“You check the traps periodically?”

“It’s one of the wonders of the job. Where else can you work outdoors, beautiful mountains, and see things real close-up, like a wild bear in a trap—something almost no one else will ever see?”

“This guy, this perv, he’d follow you while you’re checking the traps?”

“It’s an ongoing program—trapping problem bears that break into cabins and tear up trash cans and chicken coops. We trap and relocate them, in the spring especially. They’re hungry and mean. I knew he’d show up at a site.”

“Lemme guess. You lured him into a bear trap and released him where he won’t bother you anymore.”

“Thought about it. But how do you get a guy who grew up in the woods into a bear trap?”

“What if you’re the bait?”

“Thought about that, too. Show a little ankle, he clambers in after me, I put a bullet into him. But think about it. Firing a nine millimeter handgun in a steel box? Too loud. Too messy. A lot of explaining to do after.”

“You’re past the point of ignoring the guy.”

“It got worse. He showed up at my cabin, standing on the other side of the road across from my driveway. That takes me past mildly annoyed straight into pissed. I jumped out of the car and poof, he’s gone. I heard a four-wheeler start up back in the woods.”

“I’m gonna guess that was the last straw.”

“I can’t live like that, looking over my shoulder all day all night. Time to solve the problem. And without repercussions.”

“Next time you see him in the woods, put a bullet in him.”

“Easier said than done. I’d do it if he attacked me, of course. But that has its risks. He’s big. He could take me by surprise. Rape me, murder me. I can’t wait for that and I don’t want to get into a homicide, even if it’s self-defense.”

“Okay, what?”

“It went down like this. I’m checking a trap and we got one. Big brute, snarling, shaking the trap. It’s almost dancing across the forest floor, the bear is so pissed and hungry. I head to the truck to report it, get assistance, and there he is. Next to a big oak, staring at me. He shrugs the shoulder straps off and his overalls drop. Guess what? No underwear.”

“I’d a shot him.”

“Fun fact. The safest place when you release a bear is on top of the trap. Bear shoots straight out and keeps going, usually after the first thing it sees.”

“In this case?”

“A naked redneck with a four-inch pecker hopping through the woods, his overalls down around his ankles.”

“Problem solved?”

“Problem solved.”

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