"My wife may live off to the left hand side of ugly, but she'll do things'll make a man cry." Derry was talking a good game about Betty again. As everyone drew round to listen I sat back and took another swallow of beer. What's the old myth -- beautiful, they'll cheat day and night, second cousin to ugly and they'd be faithful to you out of gratitude. But I sit here wondering, what if she's supposed to be so good her looks just don't matter? I wonder if Derry's ever thought of this.
"Hell, her ugly genes got ugly genes."
I had to admit, Betty was the homeliest piece of work I'd ever seen put together that could draw a breath. But through nature's bountiful quirkiness she'd been given an incredibly sexy voice and the most gifted dirty mind a person could ever hope to have. She worked the phone sexx 900 lines, and although Derry didn't know it she owned about half the business.
"She should give it up," Duff said. "No wife of mine would even talk sex to another man." "No way." Derry shook his head, then held out one arm. I knew what was coming. "See this here nice watch?" He jiggled it on his wrist. "Phone sex money. House payments? Phone sex money." Derry had more money than he had the good sense to know what to do with, and why he needed all the extra, none of us could ever figure.
"Yeah, but do you get the sex, or just the talk?" Roe asked.
"Yeah. Aren't you worried?"
Without hesitation he shook his head, the smile crooked as a dog's back leg. "No. In fact she talks this stuff 12 on, five a week and comes home with some interesting ideas to try out. Sometimes I'm even her research."
"So has she ever tried to use you as a work related expense on her taxes?" I asked. He shot me a backward glance I knew I'd pay for later and kept talking.
"In fact last night we tried something kinda interestin." They moved in even closer, and I only caught part of the details. Something about candles, a coke bottle, duct tape, hot hot sex and her losing part of her hair. It didn't make any anatomical or logical sense, and I wasn't really listening anyway. He'd tell the story ten times over by the time the evening was out, and ten more again when I got to work tomorrow morning. When he got to the "punch line" he slapped his palms together, yipped, and then ran one hand over the side of his head.
"Took it Cuh-leen off!" They whupped and hollered like he'd killed a marauding two ton rabid bear that'd been terrorizing the county. I half expected they'd hoist him on their shoulders and carry him around, and maybe they would have if he hadn't such a beer gut and they weren't so fat gobbed out of shape.
"Ass holes," I whispered and Jake, the ever grumpy bartender, set me up with another beer. Not ten minutes after Derry had done with his story for the third time, punctuated with the singing echo of "Cuh-leen off!" Betty walked in, wobbling a bit in her tight pants and high heels. Sure enough, the hair on one side of her head was cut close, with the other side left long. It was kind of neat, too modern though for a place like this. The bar got quiet, then broke into an unsurpressable giggling and beer spewing. I just kind of leaned back against the stool, waiting for things to get good. They usually did when Betty came round but this time she gave us all a cool smile, tossed her head. It looked kinda funny, with all her hair short on one side now, but I guess old habits go hard.
Derry took a step back, and at some silent signal from her went back to the bottom of his beer mug. Betty kept smiling. I took a long draw from my beer. It had gone warm. I couldn't believe I'd been watching her that long. That she'd let me. She walked up to the bar and leaned on the counter. I could see her skin, pale but tough looking, the darkish hair on her arm looking almost downy. Funny, but I'd never noticed it before. I kept looking, following the crook of her arm on up to her shoulder, then her face. She'd been looking as hard at me as I had at her, as if we'd just seen each other for the first time but knew each other forever anyway.
"What?" I said, trying not to betray my nerves. No one was paying us any attention though.
"What what?" Betty said back.
I shook my head. "Aw, Betts."
"Don't give me that commiseratin bullshit. You're just one more ball of shit this town done shot out its tail pipe, and don't go forgetting it."
I read past the challenge, or maybe just ignored it. "So you want a beer or what?"
"That'd be gentlemanly of you."
From anyone else I might have gotten upset. But she was smiling with her eyes when she said it, like it was a private joke between us, not a perpetual insult. I turned, motioned toward my own beer and pointed to Betts. Jake nodded, and a minute later came back not with the domestic swill I was sucking down but something short, dark and sweet smelling. Betts tipped it back in one fluid motion, the drink disappearing quickly, so that for a moment I could see the inside of her mouth, distorted, through the bottom of the glass. Her tongue, thick and off pink, framed by her teeth, the way her bottom lip was pressed against the rim. It seemed to take forever for her to set the glass back down on the counter. She meant nothing by it but I shivered.
"Another?" I asked.
"For what Derry's paying you, I know you can't afford it."
I ignored her. "Another?" I asked again.
"Bless your tiny little heart," she said. The second drink went the way of the first. I laid some money on the counter, not even knowing what I was buying, or if I'd left enough to cover it. Jake would either be happily surprised by an overpayment, or let me know the difference. Betts got up to leave. "Don't go staying out drinking too late," she cautioned. "You know Derry won't take no excuses come tomorrow morning."
The next day came all too early, bringing with it the regrets of last night's drinking. I didn't have a hangover, those I don't get. I just didn't have enough to buy lunch, and there was nothing of interest left in the fridge but more beer. I knew there'd be nothing for me at work. Derry doesn't keep food in, and the refrigerator hasn't been cleaned in years. It's not even a proper office. Just an ancient garage with junked parts still rusting in the bays. The only changes Derry made was to clean off the windows and give the counters a wipe down, and that he had me do. I went on to work, but on the way I sweet talked Minnie over at the CashCow One-Stop out of a donut and over brewed coffee. I even made it in early, but Derry of course complained that I was late.
"I don't pay you good money to eat donuts, ya know."
"You don't pay me good money." I didn't get up. "I eat the donuts on my own."
"No body likes a smart ass," he said and slammed down the grimy list that was my job for the day. "I want all that done today."
I waited til he left and nudged it upright with my thumb. They were all collections, every one. A good fifteen stops in all. It was good that he was gone, or I'd of been fired just for what I was thinking of saying. I finished my breakfast, what little there was left of it, and got going. It all ran smoothly until stop number 7. Trinity Printing. I looked up the address, rechecking because it was in a residential area. No big surprise really. Lots of folks in this area are running some business or other out of their home, form barber shops to bakeries. What difference was a printing service? I pulled up to the address, a squat but neat little place on a maniacal hill. The door was impressively solid, the likes of which I hadn't seen in a good beat of time. I wondered if it were to keep mean old collectors like me from pounding it down. I knocked a second time, listening through the open windows to someone moving around inside. The rustle was faint, like slippered feet dragging. Damnit, it was an old fart. Derry knew how much I hated hassling with them. A withered husk of a woman appeared at door, peeping through a narrow crack. She looked impossibly old, the pinkish lipstick like it had shrunken over her dried lips. She wore what looked like 900 pounds of gold round her neck, was bent from weight of that or age, I couldn't tell which. Like some ancient Ms T. Honestly, the gold was so thick I was reminded of those exotic tribal women who wore the gold hoops around their necks, stretching them up and up til they could never live without the support of those rings. Her neck had disappeared as well, but through settlement instead of extension. I felt a vague sense of unease just thinking about it.
"Good afternoon, Ma'am." I nodded politely and she blinked in dim bewilderment. "I need to see Mr. Sutherland." I was thinking they coulda paid the collection bills with that jewelry, even if a good deal of it ware fake.
"He's not here," she said. I thought it looked like she wanted to kick my shins or something, so I stepped back.
"Is this his place of business?"
"No. This is where he lives."
"I'm confused then I guess. The yellow pages has this as his business address."
"It is," she said.
"Oh, so I see," I said, not seeing at all. "Then this isn't where he does business, it's just where he does business."
"So where does he do his business?"
"That's a personal and impertinent question."
I'm confused again. "What?"
"Where he does his business is none of yours..."
The way she stressed the b word I knew she'd misunderstood.
"Trinity Printing," I interrupted.
She looked relieved. "But it isn't his office"
"But the book said it was...."
"But it isn't."
"Yeah, well, can I have his office number?"
"He hasn't got one."
"An office or a number?"
"He's got an office."
"Well, where's that?"
"In his car."
"In his car." I looked in the driveway. Nothing there, not even oil stains. "Where can I find him."
"In his car."
"Where's his car."
This was Bell City. All 27 square miles of it, this bastion included. But patience is supposed to be a virtue, so I gave it a go. "In a parking lot or what?"
"Maybe you could talk to his wife."
I'd been assuming that she was the wife, but I took the opportunity offered. "Is she in?"
"Yes, she's downstairs."
"Is there an office down there?"
"No, there's a basement."
"Well, is she his business partner?"
"No, she's his wife."
The door opened the rest of the way and I stepped inside. I expected to be hit with the air cooled interior. Instead I was met with a menagerie of Virgin Marys. Paintings of them. Statues adorning every available space. Made from pipe cleaners, crimped old bottle caps, ceramic, one of modeling clay that looked vaguely like ET. In a neat 8x10 frame was a pressed butterfly wing collage of her. One was standing, but missing her arms and head, a Venus de Mary I guess. And separating each room was a fringe curtain made of rosary beads. I backed up a step. "Holy God," I said, and the woman nodded solemnly.
"You'll have to go downstairs," she was saying. "She can't walk up the steps."
I had to wonder if she were cripple or if she couldn't manage the steps on her knees. This was too strange. I eased down the steps, cringing inwardly at the Marys reaching from the walls, arms outspread, head bent down and toward me. Oh man, I was descending into some kind of hell, and they'd never let me out again. They'd pop a specially designed habit over my head, one that doubled as a straight jacket. I've never been particularly religious, but I found myself praying to God to deliver me from his followers. Just this once. It got darker as we descended, and as I rounded the corner there she was, spread out on the couch in cruciform. At first I thought she was taking all this way too far until I saw that she was surrounded by a collection of pillows, and that she was propped in place. Maybe she was dead and that was why she couldn't get up the steps.
"Um, I think this is a bad idea," I said, but the old woman was prodding me on. I looked closer and she was breathing. From one hand a rosary beat like a varicose vein.
Last thing I wanted to do was get closer. The old woman nudged me in the back.
"She's crippled up, poor thing. Can't move a speck." She said it out loud, and I could only hope the poor dear thing was deaf too. Damn, if Derry wouldn't be such an ass about contacting, I would've been out of there the minute I saw the holy army of Mary knock offs. Ah, the evils of money. Hell, they ran a printing service, they could make their own and send it to Derry for all I fucking cared. I moved closer, cleared my throat. She looked up at me in a kind of haze, half from the euphoria of good medication and the break in monotony of scenery. A new face, not Mary. Her hand moved slightly, beckoning me closer. I resisted the urge to kneel.It was dark, candles flickering, throwing odd shadows from the Mary figures. Jesus, weren't old ladies supposed to collect cats? They might have smelled, but they wouldn't have been half so creepy.
"What can I do for you?" I stated my business, and she squinted back up at me.
"I don't know what you're talking about. Dee, do you know what she's talking about?"
"She wants the Mr."
She looked back at me "He's not here."
"Yeah, I know..."
"You'll have to call him, only he doesn't have a phone out at his car. Some people do you know, but he hasn't..."
"Look, I just need to speak with him. If you could just tell me how to get to his office."
"His car," she said.
"I know, but he must park it somewhere..."
"In the driveway."
I scratched the back of my neck, tried not to squeeze the roll of documents past good taste. "Ill just go on and leave."
"He gets off work around 3," she said. "He's usually home by 3:30. You could stop by again then."
"3:30," I said.
"Except he stops for drinks," she said."So come by around 4."
"4," I said, fully intending never to come back.
"Good bye now."
I nodded. "Bye, ma'am."
"Go with God, and Trinity Printing."
We started back toward the steps. "Poor thing, she can't walk a step."
"Yeah, you said...."
"Mashed a disk in her back. Tragical."
"That surely is painful." I was trying to get away, but she took it as conversation.
"She can't even get up the steps."
If she couldn't even move she sure as hell wouldn't be making it up this narrow lane, but I thought it best not to point out the obvious.
"You ever had back pain?"
"Yes. I smashed two disks in a car accident," I said, then wondered why I felt so damned confessional.
She folded her hands together, one over one under, and I knew, just knew that she'd been watching nuns for way too long. "Did you pray to end the pain?"
I'd prayed a good deal of things at the time, but I thought it best not to go into it.
"You're a good Christian girl, I can tell," she said. Now why was it this crazy had absolutely no problem in deciphering my sex when everyone else in the fucking county called me sir? What a trade off. "You come back at four, and we'll have ourselves a prayer circle."
"I only wanted to speak with the Mr. Mr. Sutherland," I corrected myself.
"He's not here."
She took a step forward, and I figured this was when a whole herd of them would pour out of every nook, with nets and ropes and gleaming crucifixes, and that would be the end of my days. Sixty years from now I'd be sagged down with gold and luring the next collector that come through. I nearly stumbled out backwards, trying to maintain a polite exterior. "You have yourself a hell of a nice day," I said. I made my way back down the sidewalk, vowing to get good and drunk before the night was over.
They're talking dirty again, and I listen with half an ear. Betts has found yet another new position with yet another common household object, and Derry is just pumped up from the experience. I've heard it all a million times, and I'm more interested in the basketball scores quite frankly. But the sports page is missing and with all this talk I wonder how the women of the catholic cave would respond. Derry starts in again and I roll my eyes.
"That's not even anatomically possible," I said to myself.
"Hell, with all them good ideas, she got to be getting them somewhere," Quinn said. "My bet is she's cheating."
"No, there's just me. Forever and always me."
"She's cheating," Quinn says again.
"It aint so, but I'll tell you what if it was." Derry put his palms flat on the counter, squinting crudely at his audience. "If she was, and I was to ever find the cheating son of a bitch? I'd peel the skin off his dick with a spam key, then disembowel him with a tire iron. Then maybe I'd kill him." "Piss up a rope," I said, then wished I hadn't. Derry eyeballed me like he'd forgotten I'd ever been there.
"Go get Possum McKinney's rider mower," Derry commanded.
I sat up straighter. "What?"
"Straight up, easy. Go get that mower. He owes me nine hundred dollar back rent, and I want retribution."
I shook the newspaper out. "Please don't use that word. Not after what I told you happened the other day."
"Go get the damn mower or I'll knock your ass off."
"Why don't you just use the spam key?"
Derry tried to tower over me. He only bumped me with his stomach. "What I need to know, is you more afraid of him or me?"
No one, no thing came between Possum and his rider mower. It was an easy call. "You don't want me to answer that in front of the guys," I said.
"You want to get fired?"
"Starvation or getting pounded to death when he finds out I took it. Geeze, Derry, I need to keep my teeth to eat with you know."
"Just go get the god damned mower. If you're slick about it, not a damn thing'll happen but you get paid."
I hopped down off the stool, grumbling. "I'm seeing the union about better health benefits," I said.
"And while you're at it, I want you to pick Betts up from her sister's."
That meant going by Evie's, but I kept cool. "Yeah, yeah, just let me get going before Possum does his daily wake up." He tossed me his keys and off I went. I was a little nervous about tagging up with both Betts and Evie, but luckily Betts was standing on the corner, looking like the bad end of a candle in the heat. I pulled up, slid my sunglasses half down. "You hang out on street corners often?"
"Whenever I damn well please." She stood there, obviously waiting for something. I realized dully it was for me to open the door. Instead of getting out I leaned across and popped it open from the inside. She rolled her eyes but got in. I pulled off and she started fiddling with my radio station.
"It mighta been crap, but I was listening to that."
She switched it off and without any other preamble said "You know, somehow everyone seems to think all I know is sex."
"Uh-huh. And do you know anything else?"
She ignored me. I realized this was one of those one sided conversations. It didn't matter what I said, just so's I was a warm body to sit there and nod, even nod off while she talked.
"Don't get me wrong. I just love it. Not all the goddamn time though. I mean, there is more to life."
"Like beer and shotguns, the tattooed gimp at the fair..."
"There's literature. And movies. And a simple goddamn drive in the simple goddamn country on a Sunday afternoon." This sounded like the beginning of an accidental confessional, so I kept talking.
"And Vienna Sausages in those teeny little cans, watching dogs go at it..." She slugged me on the arm. I guess she'd been listening after all. "So sure," I began, puffing up to seriousness. "There's more to life. So why do you do it?"
She edged closer, her bare legs making a belching sound across the vinyl seats. "Cause I'm that good. I know everything there is to know about sex. Go on, ask me anything."
I hesitated, not really wanting to have this conversation. It coulda stayed one sided, and I'd of been plenty happy. "Anything at all," she encouraged.
"Laws to God, Betts."
"For instance, did you know that necrophilia is a felony in 47 states?"
I nodded mutely.
"But it's just a misdemeanor in New York."
"That's crazy," I said distastefully.
"Show's what New Yorkers are like is all," Betts said.
"Yeah..." I stole a look at her. She seemed wound and ready to launch into a new fact. "Betts?"
"What's neck..necco...what you just said?"
"Sex with dead people," she said with a matter of fact kind of pride.
I nearly drove off the road. I couldn't tell if she were serious or not. "What? Jesus, I've never heard of such a thing."
She tsked tsked me. "Honey-pie, ant you ever read your Faulkner?" I shook my head, unsure suddenly if I ever wanted to. "What the hell you think Southern Gothic's all about?"
"Did he really write about that?"
"You need to read more."
"Naturally, I need to read more. I need to be educated about sex with dead people."
"You like sex. You adore it don't you?"
"Isn't this what you were just complaining about?" I said. But the conversation had turned one sided again. The trouble with women was that they were, well, women. I was confused sometimes that I was one of them.
"Hell, I'd do it with a goat." she grinned, and I hoped to Elvis' blue suede shoes she was teasing. "I'd do it with near anybody if I thought it'd be fun."
"Any dead body," I said under my breath.
"I said, how about Richard Nixon."
"Well, anyone named Tricky Dick is bound to be a good time. Don't ya think?"
"Not really." She laughed at this. "OK, then. Name one person you wouldn't do it with," I challenged. I pulled up to the curb and she seemed to consider it. She gave me an evil grin and slid back over to her side of the car.
"So what are you gonna run off and get into?"
"Derry wants me to go take Possum's rider mower back."
"Ew, good damn luck." She got out, and I sat there, engine idling.
"Derry," she said.
"Derry," she said again. "I'd never do it with him."
"But..." I was talking to the back of her already. I tapped the steering wheel with my fist, wondering how such a small town could have gotten so terrifically screwed up.
"Hey." She bent back toward the car, her arms on the open window, her head over the empty seat. "You asked why I did it. For the money of course. And because I like it." She was framed by metal, her hair hanging crazily down. I realized then that she wasn't ugly. She was just guilty of being plain like most everyone else.
"Do you really get up to all that stuff? The shit Derry talks about?"
"Hell no. I'm only human. I'd have to be some kinda space alien to have that kinda stamina. For that matter, so would he."
"Would explain a lot if that were so. So then, how did you lose your hair?"
"What'd he say?"
I played coy, shrugging across the short distance. "Something about common household articles and lurid sex." She hooted at this.
"I was curling my hair. I was so damn tired I half nodded off and burned the shit out of it."
"I think it looks cool," I said and pulled away before she had a chance to respond.
Betts' younger sister, Miss Yvette Lowel, Evie to me, wasn't that much older than I was myself, but because her husband was mostly off working the oil rigs over in Louisiana, she was counted as a widow or a spinster. On Thursdays Derry had me go over to do odd jobs and drop off groceries. But let me tell you, I delivered more than dish detergent or cans of soup. The first time anything happened I had just finished fixing the pipes, and I was washing my hands at the kitchen sink. She came up behind me and ran her hand up the inseam of my jeans. She pressed me against the sink, her hips behind mine, her hands at my chest, her teeth mincing my ear. It was clear what she wanted of me, and I was after all being paid to take care of her. So what the hell. After that she'd meet me at the door, or leave cryptic inviting notes taped to the screen. I'd get inside and there she'd be, sometimes with a full cooked meal, sometimes she was the meal. Once, she was totally naked save for shiny black rubber gloves, and she did a dance I can't begin to describe. Early on, she'd pretend to be the grievous lonely woman, which she was in some ways, then she'd pretend to be mourning the loss of her family in some tragic accident or other that took her man, her kids, even the family dog. We dispensed with all that after the first month or so -- she liked to play some strange games, and although they made me nervous, I found them wonderfully wicked fun. I was the police and she was an errant terrible criminal. I was a villainous Yankee, we were both women in prison, or I'd have to pretend to break in and discover her hiding.
Evie had more stuff to tie people up with than I would have ever thought was needed at any given time. There were ropes and cuffs of all varieties, stuff made out of leather, studded, dripping with clinking chrome chains and buckles. Silken blindfolds, rubber gags. Odd looking things to plug up every imaginable orifice. Some of the stuff would take so long to get into that she'd give it a head start by putting it on before I even got there. All I had to do was fasten her up. Then when I was done, unfasten her again. We did things in the shower, across the kitchen table, in the garden even. But she liked it best when I tied her to bed, and that's what we were up to today. She'd been hiding behind the shower curtain and I'd ripped it from its hangers, half wrapped her in it and carried her into the bedroom. Now, straddling her, I gave her my best dark look, let my bangs fall into my eyes. She was breathing hard, straining just a little. I took off my shirt, but that was all.
"You're holding out on me," I growled.
"No. No, I've given you everything..."
"Where's the silver?"
I touched her, eased my hand inside. I'd been teasing her this way for over twenty minutes now.
"Oh...please..." She bit her lip, tilted her head back so that I could see the underside of her chin. I worked slowly, methodically, the way I'd learned though her strange direction over the past years. She was tightening around my fingers, her whole body quivering.
"Is it here?" I pushed further in and she jerked. "Here?" Rhythmic now, curling in and out.
"Oh God...Oh...Good God Damnit!!" She arched in time with the pumping of my hands, and any minute she would start laughing. That was her release, and the first time it happened I was more than a little non-plussed. I mean, I'd never heard of anyone laughing during an orgasm before. But that was Evie, and she was breathing in tiny puffs, squeaking out little "ohs" that were the beginnings of giggles. Encouraged, emboldened, I picked up the pace.
She screamed, her legs steel straight, and started laughing, a sound like wet glass being rubbed. I sat up, bemused and proud. Embarrassed.
"Oh Scooby," she breathed. I leaned forward, started to untie one hand. She bit at my nipple and I pulled away. "Oh Scooby, you're just a natural. A born great fuck, you know that?"
"Born to get fucked if anyone finds out." I had both her hands free now and she sat up, picked the knots around her ankles herself. She touched my shoulders, kissed my cheek lightly.
"Derry would kill me," I said. "He'd fire me for sure."
"Death or being fired..." She started collecting the velvet rope, looping it round itself.
"Don't you like our little visits?"
"You know I do." I kissed the top of her head. She smiled back.
"Why do you think he sends you over here every week?"
I'd never thought about it before. She was quiet, giving me time to consider it. Before me, his son Kevin had been running this route. "You and Kevin?" I asked.
"Yeah, but he was no fun. Derry-air sent you cause he thought it'd keep me off his son."
I thought about the pimply faced little nit. Her own nephew. "You and Kevin?" I asked again.
"Yeah, but we never, ever fucked."
All I could do was laugh. Pathetic Loan Shark Derry and his ugly wife, her lecherous and vaguely better looking younger sister and his son. There was a movie title in this, I just knew it, and I had a supporting role.
"Damn, you are one screwed up bunch," I said.
"Oh come on," Evie said. "He did all the advancing. I just flirted til his pimples popped under the pressure."
"You waiting for me to pop?"
I looked around the room, noticing not for the first time there were no pictures of her supposed husband. There were touches of a masculine presence, but it didn't belong to a man in that sense of the word.
"You even got a husband that works on the rigs?" I asked. She answered with a smile, then leaned over and opened the drawer of her night stand. But she didn't take anything out.
"Want to play a new game?"
I looked at my watch. I had to get washed up, still had a few more errands to run before I called it a day. When I looked back at her, she was leveling a gun at me, the rope coiled loosely in her other hand.
"Ya'll want to find out what happens when a strong, independent woman finds a burglar in her house?"
For the next few days I wore long sleeves, because even though she left no bruises, I was paranoid they showed just the same.
Poker night made my stomach nervous. It wasn't that Possum was there, he's there every week. He was an idiot about most things, but he knew cards, and kept dealing to me from the bottom of the deck. He was slick, even artful, but near everybody else was too drunk to notice. I play cold sober so I can pick up on just such shenanigans. Don't get me wrong, I liked winning. But I felt guilty too, just waiting for the other shoe to drop right on top of my head. Possum kept smiling, giving me little winks while I just kept wondering how many pieces he'd tear me in if he had any clue it was me that took his mower. After the sixth hand we took an early break.
"Shit, fellas," Roe said "Bad damn bowels. Ya'll know how Em's cream corn'll go through ya." They all nodded, but I knew they were just trying to break my winning streak. The only thing that would break that would get my head broke in the process, so while they were jawing I tried to figure on what to do. I walked outside to get some fresh air, but Possum met me at the door. I cringed for a second, but he didn't notice. His own hands were shaking and he couldn't meet my eyes.
"I need yer help," he said.
I only nodded, feeling my own bowel going bad.
"Derry done took my mower."
Now I really didn't want to say anything.
"I know, cuz I saw it in the impound out back."He jerked his head, still not looking up.
"Poss, you got money to pay him what you owe?"
"You dealin dirty to me hoping to hit me up for a loan?" His eyes clouded at this, and I could tell he was thinking about it for the first time. "Forget it," I said. "Why don't you deal yourself a few good hands."
"That'd be cheatin."
I skipped over the flawed logic in that and continued. "I can't help ya Poss."
"Can't ya just unlock the impound?"
"I don't have keys," I lied.
" It'd only take me a second, and I could just push it out."
"I don't even have to start it."
That'd been pretty much how I'd done it. Pushed it out, let it roll down the incline of his yard, then pushed it until I was far enough away to drive it up the ramps and into the back end of Derry's truck. When I got there I saw he kept it all penned up like a dog. There was a fresh patch of emerlad green lawn under it, a freshly painted picket fence surrounding it, and a little tiny garage with it's own running rooster weather vane perched on the roof. After grunting my way halfway cross the yard I saw that his girlfriend Nance was watching me. She balanced her arm across her stomach, flipping cigarette ash away with her pinkie. She nodded.
"Go on with it," she said. "Spends more damn time with that than he does me." "Poss, I just can't do it." He was starting to cry, big sloppy silent tears he didn't bother to try and hide.
"I love that mower," he sniffed. "I was really hoping just to drive it home."
I pictured him, driving the bright green muscular machine down the middle of the road at 3 am, stinking of beer and cigarettes, expecting not to draw a speck of attention to himself. I shook my head, reached up and put one hand on his shoulder. "I'm really sorry."
He drew the back of his hand across his eyes. "It's OK. I can always just look at it for now."
"Oh damn." I pushed ten dollars, which he had cheated to earm me, into his rough palm. "Look, that'll be enough to buy you a good bolt cutter. Just come back and take the damn thing why don't you?" He clutched the money to his chest, careful not to crush it, like it were alive. "And before you go thanking me, just don't go getting caught."
He gave me a hard slap on the back and rushed off toward the men's room, happy and giggling. I knew he wouldn't do it, and that if he did he'd get himself caught. That's when I decided to cash out. I got about three feet outside the door when I heard my name called. I recognized the voice, but it didn't seem natural. Like hearing a bird tweet on a battlefield. Over across the parking lot Evie sat in a beaten up old Chevy Derry had given her. I'd of course seen her away from the house, but it was always so strange seeing her out of, what was for me, her natural context. It was dark, but I slunk over to the truck, looking for something to hide behind.
"Get in," Evie said. I stood dumbly for a moment, and she told me to get in again. "Let's go somewhere for coffee." It was near midnight and drinking coffee after dark never made much sense to me. But I didn't say no.
"Like to a restaurant?" I asked.
"What are you being so jackrabbity about?" She leaned across the seat and kissed me. "Shew, you smell like cigarette smoke."
"The guys," I said. "Is everything ok?"
"Right as rain." She did a sharp turn that left me pressed against her. She was warm, soft, but I scooted back to my side of the seat. "You afraid to be seen with me?"
"No." I shrugged. "Yes." She slumped a little and I could tell she was hurt. "Not embarrassed. Just a little nervous about...Well, you know."
"Yeah." She drove in silence, pulled over at a fast food place with a giant cow perched on top and ordered coffee through the little window. We pulled into a different parking lot and sat, not drinking our coffee.
"If you was to have money, lots of it, what would you do?"
I started to answer but she started talking again. She and Betts had a lot in common I guess.
"I mean, would you ever just go away with me?"
"I mean it. Would you go?"
I hesitated, not sure really what she was on about.
"I'm not asking you to love me. I'm just askin if you'd go away with me."
I'd always just assumed they meant the same thing. I brushed her fingers with the back of my hand. I'd never thought about how I felt about Evie. I'd never even talked to her about it. But something in the way the buzzing arc lamps threw her into shadow shape told me all I needed to know. She'd been the only peace, the only joy I knew in this place. "I would," I said. If I'd had any doubt, her smile cleared it up. I thought she'd kiss me, but she started the truck back up again. She drove me home, reciting directions like she was priming me for a top secret mission.
"Pack an overnight bag and meet me at The Skunked Pumpkin. Monday, eight sharp."
"And tell no one," I repeated.
love you," she said, finally kissing me. "And if you stand me up, I'll
kill you deader than shit." With a line like that, what was there to do but
invite her in?
Next week I was sitting at the bar, buried in thoughts of Evie and the foam of my beer. I'd checked and rechecked my watch, asked myself for the thousandth time what the hell I thought I was doing and why I had such cold feet when Possum stomped in.
"Where's that low down bastard?" he yelled. "Oily spot of monkey jism..."
"Oh shit." I slid off the stool, hoping to high tail it out of there. But it was never quite dark enough and I ran right into him.
"You shiteared bastard," he said. "I'm gonna pound yer head to oatmeal."
I tried to put the stool between us. "Possum, you know you owed Derry that money." I was dancing back, wondering how he'd found out it was me.
"Poss, don't you go hitting her," Jake said from behind the bar.
"Bastard took my mower," he pointed at me. "Took her right out of the shed. In daylight hours!"
"Just the same, don't you go hitting her in here."
I was trying to slide down the bar toward the women's room. Maybe Possum wouldn't follow me in there. Maybe. "Jesus Jake, why don't you just invite him to take me outside."
"No fighting in here. And no hitting women."
To me it amounted to the same thing. I kept inching along, Possum stuck to me like an overgrown shadow. Across the bar Derry had turned his back, played on at his dart game.
"Son of a bitch," I said, knowing Derry had to be the one to rat me out.
"She took my mower,"
"Well, you can take it up with her outside."
"Hey, whose side are you on?' I asked. "Can't you offer a little protection."
"You can't hide behind the bar," Jake said.
"You can't hide ferever," Possum echoed.
"Why am I even discussing this?" I said to no one. Jake would offer me no asylum, and Possum was going to have his due, one way or the other. The only sensible thing to do was run. I threw the stool and bolted, but he grabbed me like a pup. Before I could even get my hands up he hit me, his fist riding into me like a stepped up Lincoln. My ears ring like church bells, and I'm dimly sure that he's knocked my cheekbone clear off.
"Offfuuhhh..." I saw his fist barreling toward me a second time, felt a cool breeze blowing through the hole he made. The entirety of the bar patrons were on him, hanging like shoestring snakes, not stopping him a whit. He could have kept killing me, but he picked me up, sat me back on my stool. I started to slip off and he balanced me there with one hand.
"There then." He put my beer back in my hand, but it was all I could do to sit up. "I'd give you more, but it's a braver thing that you done than any other of these shit mites."
"Great day, Possum." Someone said. "You done hit her good."
"She's got more balls than any one of you put together," he said. Great -- I finally had balls. But what good would they do me if I didn't have a functioning head? He turned back. "Now you go on and stay outta my yard." He put his hand under my chin, nodded my head for me. He left, and somehow I took a pull off my beer. My head was still ringing, and I don't think I was really seeing straight.
"I do believe I'm concussed," I said. "My jaw has extra hinges or something..."
"Did you see how she took that punch?"
"Did you ever see the git of it?" It'd been a two hit punch out, but behind me they shadowboxed, ducking and weaving.
Jake slid me another beer, but I wasn't sure which of the three I was seeing was the real thing. I laid my head down on the bar, hoping just not to get sick. My head did the Kentucky Reel for what felt like hours. I'm in the sorriest excuse for a drinking hole in three counties. I'm pushing close to thirty and I'm the head toadie for an undersexed over dreamer who thinks we all believe he makes it with his wife every waking moment. I screw my bosses wife's sister, and I've just had my eye blackened by a man who calls himself Possum. Where was there to go but up?
"Fuck it." I ordered another beer, rested the cool sweaty glass against my cheek. I drank the warm one while I kept the cold one on my face.
"Shit, Jake, don't you think you could spare some ice."
"You didn't ask."
"No fucking tip for you..." Someone touched my shoulder. It was Betts. I never noticed she'd come in.
"That's a pretty eye," she says. "Never noticed the color before." She looks me up and down, and I start to order her a drink. "Not this time sugar," she said. She takes out a cig and lights up, blowing smoke through her teeth, up, disappearing where the light dissolved to dark. Blowing smoke like she'd been practicing to do it that way and was satisfied with the results.
"How old are you?" she asked, her lip quivering into a smile.
The question is totally out of nowhere. Did I even hear her right? "Half your age, but old enough to know better." I took a swallow of beer. "And old enough to know when to enjoy it."
"Do you even know what I'm asking you?" She leaned forward, trying to figure out how blown I was I guess. I looked over to where her husband stood, throwing darts. I looked back to her, images dragging slowly behind what I saw. My eyes narrowed.
"I guess you do, don't you."
"I know what you've been up to," she said. "What kind of games you and Evie play." I just stared in wonderment. "I do talk to my sister you know."
I shook my head. "She told you?"
"I've got money."
"She told you?"
"Look..." She started pulling on her already dangerously low shirt. I started to avert my gaze. There are some things I just don't want to see in triplicate, and I've done been hit too many times tonight. She touched my hand. I was going red, and was pissed that I was, and that I had to look away.
"Look," she said more gently. And I did. And I was amazed at what I saw. There must have been thousands of dollars taped round her sides. I don't know why she'd done that. The money was all hers. Maybe she just liked the way it felt -- a filthy lucre boustier.
"I'm going...." she said.
"Who the hell cares."
"Well, goodbye, I guess."
"Evie's in the car."
I waved toward the front door, past which was the parking lot. "Bye to Miss Evie."
"Jesus, you must be concussed." Finally, someone was in agreement. She slipped one arm under mine. We walked to the door, slow and uneven, a sober leading what looked like a drunk. No one paid us the slightest bit of attention. Outside it had gotten dark and twice as humid. Betts had brought the Caddy, the one I'd repoed for Derry a month or so back. It was buffed shiny and green, I know because I'd waxed and armor alled it just last week. The top was down to show the leather interior, with Evie spread regally across the backseat. She must have loved the upholstery.
"Hey Evie," I said. My legs felt all rubbery and I thought I was going to fall. Betts kept me standing. She's stronger than she looks.
"Poor angel." Evie crooned from the back. "Put her here next to me." Betts opened the door, flipped the seat so I could step in.
"One brave soldier, delivered up," Betts said. Evie pulled me close, patted the side of my face. It felt good. Then the engine fired to life and Betts pulled out of the parking lot. Evie smelled fresh and clean, and the way she smiled made her look almost pretty.
"We playing fugitive tonight?" I asked.
"We're playing for good," Evie said. "We've got everything we need packed, and what we don't got we'll buy new." I wondered how much of the trunk was taken up by Evie's toys. I turned to see if the trunk were bulging, and that's when I saw the little u-haul trailing after.
"Why, we're Thelma and Louise with a Spare," Evie said.
"I'm no fucking Brad Pitt."
"No honey, you're just fucking."
"Just so's we have that cleared up." For the barest of moments I wanted to go back and get my things. It was a good damn thing my dog had up and died last year, because the way Betts was driving I doubt if they'd have gone back for him. But then we slowed to a stop, and Evie set up her timer camera. It took picture after picture of the three of us, in various poses and positions, sitting in the car next to the So Long and Thanks for Stopping in Bell City billboard. When we got the pictures developed, we sent copies back to Derry.
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