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J. K. Mason

Family Tree

Those who knew BL Patterson will tell you this: BL never filed a tax return, did not vote, had no tattoos, and moved every few months (assuming a new identity at each location). BL’s favorite ruse was Dumpster Diving: digging in trash for bank statements or pre-approved credit card offers. After snatching the personal information and appropriating the identity of a victim, BL would obtain credit in the victim’s name and then convert it to cash.

Before graduating to Dumpster Diving, BL took a more personal approach: locate a mark--always a retired trailer park resident--and then move in close, use proximity as an advantage.

BL’s biggest score (according to cohorts and informants) came at the expense of eighty-four-year-old Whitley Bingham, a widower and veteran. BL first situated an old, dirty pull-trailer on the lot beside Whitley’s. Then BL obtained Whitley’s social security number and intercepted his credit report at the community mailbox. After acquiring thirty-seven credit cards in Whitley’s name, BL tapped into Whitley’s phone line at the service box between their trailers and made the credit card activation calls from Whitley’s home telephone number.

During this period, all BL saw of Whitley Bingham was the outline of his innocent head, at night, framed by the window and bathed in the glow of his television. Three months after moving in, BL moved out with over eighteen thousand dollars (rumor has it BL spent five years in prison for this).

Later in life, BL quit trailer parks, and to authorities, became notorious for assuming the identities of the deceased. Evidently, stealing from live people was simply too risky; becoming a dead person was essentially a victimless crime and therefore offered a smaller chance of capture.

So when diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given three months to live, BL made efforts to ensure that "BL Patterson"--or, more accurately, the personal information associated with BL Patterson (and there wasn’t much)--would never be plundered by anyone else. Fussing over the destiny of an alias might seem odd to some, but apparently BL was a perfectionist and often became obsessed by such things.

BL gave away (to an apartment manager named Lynn Martin) all worldly possessions: a dented Chrysler LeBaron and an old personal computer. Then, with a pint of hundred-proof Smirnoff, BL washed down twelve tranquilizers and twenty-six sleeping pills.

BL did not arrange for a death notice in the newspaper; but after receiving news of BL’s death, Lynn Martin made other plans. Evidently, he felt that placing an obituary was the least he could do in exchange for BL’s security deposit.

***

So now that BL has died, it is ironic that in death she has more of herself than others do: she thinks she can see, and although blurry and shadowy at times, her vision does remain. What she sees first is her obituary, being scribbled out longhand by Lynn Martin, who has just finished cleaning her apartment. BL’s eyes follow the neb of the pen as it moves across the paper, the trail of blue ink.

BL then sees her naked body lying faceup on a metal tray at the morgue. Her thoughts are vague and transient. Never did she feel so tired in life, and more than anything else, she wants to lie down, sleep. She watches the attending pathologist prodding and poking at her body, and when he writes on his pad, she feels a scratchy sensation in places where her skin once was, like a soft brush tickling a scabby wound--tender, itchy.

***

On the morning BL Patterson’s obituary appears in the newspaper, it is mixed in with eighty-six others--a normal day of death in Seattle County--and reads simply: "BL Patterson. NO PHOTO." The brevity of it catches the eye of Robert Daydo, Quality Control Specialist at the Seattle branch office of On-Time Credit, a national collection agency. Each morning, Daydo browses the obits, cross-referencing names to the On-Time client database. Dead people have become prime targets for identity thieves, so this is standard procedure at the over eight hundred On-Time branch offices. Sometimes Daydo finds it difficult matching a name to a social, but with the worldwide databases he has available, it’s usually only a matter of time.

Daydo finishes cross-referencing all but BL Patterson, and as he types "BL Patterson" on the keyboard, BL’s eyes follow the characters across on the screen, the pixels of light. And deep in her blurry ocean of thought, BL is disturbed by the notion that someone is searching for information about her.

When Daydo hits Enter, the On-Time Database returns over two hundred hits on "BL Patterson," none from the Seattle area. BL can see into Robert Daydo’s thoughts, which concern the periods and initials in BL’s name. BL also sees persistence in Robert Daydo, and this troubles her, for persistence was a trait that served her well in life. Daydo tries searching with different combinations of periods and spaces; even so, the On-Time database returns nothing in the Seattle area. Robert Daydo picks up the telephone, taps in a number.

"Hi Darla. Can you pull a death certificate for me? I’m looking for information on a BL Patterson, who apparently died there at Mercy."

"Well, that wasn’t a very warm hello."

"This line is monitored," says Daydo, softly.

BL watches Robert Daydo speak with Darla and knows there is more than business between them. Darla is the accounts receivable manager for the seven Mercy General Hospitals in Seattle County. Once a week, Daydo confers with her concerning the long list of people indebted to Mercy. Recently, they’ve been meeting over lunch in the hospital cafeteria. BL sees this in Daydo’s thoughts, which fall like photographs dealt from a shuffled deck of scenes: the week before, Daydo took her to a movie and dinner; Darla’s apartment; the wine they drank; the games they played; the kinky things Daydo did while she was strapped to the kitchen table.

"Yup, that’s how it reads. B-L-Patterson, with an O. Caucasian. Hair, black. Five foot four. Date of birth, unknown. Occupation, unknown. Sex, blank. Everything else, unknown or blank. You might try calling the attending pathologist." Darla pauses. "That’s odd. I don’t see BL Patterson on our debtor list."

"No. I’m just tying up some loose ends here in my database." Daydo clears his throat. "BL Patterson might be on your list with another name. You know how people are nowadays." Daydo has no legitimate reason for asking Darla about the medical records of persons not on the Mercy General debtor list, but the boundaries of propriety in patient records have become nebulous, intangible.

"Something is odd about this BL Patterson," says Darla. "There’s nothing in the medical folder. Just an admission record and a death certificate. No history or transcription record. Maybe BL Patterson received treatment somewhere else before coming here, but the medical records should have been sent along."

"How about an address?" asks Daydo.

"Just a PO Box."

***

Daydo calls the Postal Service and obtains the physical address on file for the PO Box. He enters the address into his pocket PC. And as BL watches him do this, she hears the faint sounds from Daydo’s keyboard--a clicking, a clacking--and realizes she can hear again.

Daydo drives to the address, an apartment in the Seattle suburb of Redundo. In front of the building marked "OFFICE" is a sign with a phone number. Daydo enters the number into his PC, into the file he is building on BL Patterson, and from the parking lot, he taps the number into his cell phone. BL hears Lynn Martin’s voice come through the phone: "Bay View Apartments. Lynn Martin. Can I help you?"

Robert Daydo enters "LYNN MARTIN" into his PC and begins paging through Lynn’s personal information. If only I had such a computer in life, thinks BL.

"Mr. Martin, this is Robert Daydo, integrity specialist for On-Time Credit Associates here in Seattle. I’m researching the whereabouts and background of a person named BL Patterson, who I understand was a tenant at your property."

"BL Patterson is dead. She died last week."

"Can you tell me what BL stands for?"

"Nope. I really didn’t know the woman. I just helped her out with some property. That was it. Is there a problem?"

"No problem. This is standard procedure for the agency after a death of this nature. What type of property are you referring to?"

"She left an old car out in the parking lot and a PC in her apartment. She gave them to me, but neither one works. They--"

"I will need to see the PC," says Robert Daydo.

"Sure. You can have it if you want. It’s too old for anything but the trash, and they charge extra for computers now."

***

The PC does not boot because the disk drive has been formatted. Robert Daydo unformats it, and as each cylinder of data is recovered to the hard drive, each digital bit, BL Patterson feels a part of herself returning. She is overwhelmed by an old, familiar feeling: like the initial euphoria in a bout of drinking, or the way she’d feel when discovering something personal--a document with the promise of credit. If BL had a heart, it would beat faster now. Then she realizes how tired she is, and she slides to the floor, lies there, spread-eagled.

The Unformat command finishes, and Robert Daydo reboots the PC. In one file folder, he discovers software for generating valid credit card numbers. Another contains programs to read and steal the files of computers on the Internet. Another directory has text and photo-processing software, along with hundreds of identification documents--birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports. All bearing the digitized image of the same woman.

In subdirectories on the PC, Daydo finds social security numbers and financial records for thousands of people. When he enters some of the names and numbers into the On-Time database, he discovers that most are dead people and many are flagged "Fraud Alert."

BL rises slowly from the floor and stands. She feels the pressure of deep water, an ocean crushing her chest, stealing her breath. She looks down and for the first time realizes that parts of her body are missing--her feet, her stomach. What she can see--sections of her chest, legs, and arms--is filmy, green, and gelatinous. She is fully conscious now and feels that her thoughts are even more coherent than they were in life. She watches Daydo and chuckles. Robert Daydo will never discover my real name, she thinks, and then realizes that even in death, it feels good to laugh.

***

Robert Daydo enters the County Morgue and walks over to the clerk at the front desk. "Mornin’. I’m here to view the body of BL Patterson."

In the examination room, BL watches Robert Daydo circle the table that holds her body. There is movement everywhere. Two gloved attendants palpate a male cadaver at the far end of the room; a complete autopsy is underway three tables down. No one seems to notice Daydo. BL smells strong disinfectant and something sweet lurking just outside the door of every breath. She watches Robert Daydo take furtive glances around the room and then remove scissors from his jacket. Then she feels a tugging at her cheeks when Daydo snips hair from her head and clips away fingernails, and a prickly sensation on her chin as Daydo snips free a one-inch round patch of skin from the only place he can get a good grip on--her left breast. She watches Daydo place these items into a sandwich bag, which he puts into his jacket pocket.

Back at On-Time, Daydo parks and walks across the lot to the corporate lab where he fills out paperwork to have a genetic fingerprint created from BL’s body samples. On the form, he specifies that the resulting data be transferred to his personal email queue.

Daydo hands the form to the lab technician. "When will this be cataloged in the database?"

"Should be later today," she says, matter-of-factly.

***

Daydo is sitting at his computer when confirmation arrives that BL Patterson’s DNA map is ready for positioning in the On-Time database. BL is behind him, watching over his shoulder. Daydo brings up a screen filled with small boxes connected by thin blue lines. One box contains a picture Daydo took from a false ID card on her PC--the sorriest picture of the bunch, thinks BL. Above it, BL sees photos of her mother and father, and above those, photos of her grandparents. Daydo clicks on BL’s mother and a window appears with icons and pictures: the house BL grew up in; BL as a young girl, standing beside her estranged brother; and on a bicycle in front of a Christmas tree.

Daydo closes the window and clicks on BL’s picture. Folder icons and thumbnail photos appear. A manila folder in the bottom corner of the screen is labeled "BL PATTERSON--DNA Map." Using his mouse, Daydo drags the folder across and drops it into BL’s window. An hourglass appears then flips over, and as the pixels of sand drop down into the lower section of the glass, BL’s legs tingle and her arms quiver. She feels faint and drops to the floor, sits with her head bowed in her folded arms. She rests a moment then looks up and smells stale coffee. Her eyebrows twitch and her frizzy black hair falls down over her ears, onto her shoulders. She stretches her arms and fingers, opens her eyes wide, then closes them tight, gritting her teeth. She stands up, spins a circle on the ball of her foot.

She feels safe, anonymous, like she did when moving to a new apartment, assuming a new identity, or when outside a store, driving away after charging items to someone’s credit card. She rubs her hands over her face, smells their coppery odor, then runs one down through the head and body of Robert Daydo, who reacts by twitching his shoulders and cocking his head. BL leans forward, taps randomly on Daydo’s keyboard, adding characters to his words. She pushes her arm into Daydo’s screen, creating sparkles and flashes on the monitor. Daydo’s PC locks up, so he pushes the reboot button, stands, and leaves his cubicle.

BL understands: her real name means nothing to Robert Daydo, for Daydo has entered everything about her into the On-Time database, where her pictures and genetic map will remain, online forever--a box of data in On-Time’s tree of humanity, a mouse click from anyone who wants it.

What bothers her most is that she is tired and wants so much to sleep, fade into the nameless obscurity of forever--let the world forget her, leave her alone. Like a drop of water lifted from the ocean by sunshine, carried over the land in clouds, thrown to the earth in a storm, then returned to the sea by a river, BL has traveled the circuit of life and is now at the edge of eternity’s ocean. But there stands Robert Daydo.

Daydo’s telephone rings and he returns to his cubicle.

"Hi Bob, how’s your day going?"

"Hey Darla. Just another day."

"Got any plans for tonight?"

"Nope."

"How about you come to my place for dinner. I have a little surprise."

BL looks around, wonders what’s next. She watches Daydo power down his PC, pull on his jacket. Daydo is last to leave the office, and as the lights dim, BL looks down at her body, now whole, and thinks, So this is it? Will they come and take me now? They--whoever they are, the keepers of Heaven or Hell. With my life, it’ll be Hell for sure.

Across the silent office, in the far corner, a small green light blinks to the arrival of a fax.


J. K. Mason's fiction was recently published in Whistling Shade. He lives in Montana and is currently working on his second novel.

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