Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More Attic Tapes

Slivers (okay, chunks) of this story have appeared before; since I wrote it during a Christmas season, I thought I'd haul out a bit more. The story is entitled "Bitterroot."

Love of Ms. Augmon hijacked Ray through twenty-five years of largely unrequited passion and travel across the Deep South, as Traci stayed just one or two steps ahead of her diminishing nursing skills (compromised already, remember, at the outset), plying her graveyard shift penchant in the hospitals of Natchitoches (Louisiana), Jackson (Mississippi), and Montgomery (Alabama).

Four years of common law bliss and two of nuptialed purgatory intervened in the Jackson years, between Traci and Ben. Completing the ménage was hangdog Ray who, while continuing to suffer Traci’s unrequiting tolerance, fell fortuitously into the first true buddy he’d ever found in Ben. To Traci’s chagrin and amusement, the two hit it off from the first time Ray walked up on them under the big silver maples at Riverside Park, getting through the predictable, “No, he’s not family,” and “No, not friends, exactly,” and even the unpredictable “No, not a creep either,”—social inoculations to which Traci and Ray were long immune. Ben was the first to take them both into his bosom.

Half of which—the Traci half—ended eleven years ago. Since then, Ben had gone solo for two years, ridden shotgun with Melanie for seven, and was now into his second Christmas of being bounced back into the streets. Those seven years of side by side were enough to win the hearts of Mel’s fatherless kids Vanessa and Brooke, while fathering their own little Van. Melanie was more a protracted season of sticky rain for a desert heart than she ever was a true mate, but the kids—all three of them—broke and gentled him in a way no one had been able to: Vanessa, the dark horsy geek with a heart of gold; Brooke and her nose for more trouble than its worth, drowning in the halo of her older sister; and little Van, whose face carried all the sweetness that for that one season Ben had loved in Mel. For all the trouble he’d brought Melanie, he prayed that somewhere she was able to feel all the love he gave his son as partly for her, too. From the looks of it, probably not.

His love for Traci, on the other hand, had burned white hot. He’d once endured a winter evening’s hard freeze on some desolate flatland along the Ross Barnett Reservoir, to gaze through half a dozen telescopes set up by the Jackson Astronomical Society, tripping over kids up way past their bedtimes and listening to starstruck wizards drone on endlessly about tiny pinpoints of starlight with names of nothing more than numbers and letters. Something had killed off that Traci-Ben white heat, and relegated it, too, to a pinpoint of nameless anonymity.

Anonymity indeed. Murder has a face, in this case two faces. Three, if you count Traci as unforgiving co-conspirator. More than faces, in fact—full blown naked bodies in sleeping aftermath of the true crime, but they were naked, and their nakedness was on the mattress Traci had just bought the week before on Highway 49, and the naked blonde beside her till then man Ben was that of her till then best friend and duplex neighbor Cindy. Give it to Ben that there was no dissembling, nor any mad dash made for shabby excuses, not even the reasonable one of a year’s worth of unemployment that had burned to cinders whatever last bit of dignity he had left in him. Give it to Traci that a year’s worth of listening to the professional excuse-making of University Hospital’s eighth floor psychobabblers was not a default resource she cared to delve into the least little bit. An honest murderer knows better, and so does his victim.

Ray Barnes was not one to choose sides, however. Call him, then, the impassioned stargazer enraptured still by a pinpoint of light that shines way past its death in a dark fracture of the universe. Not quite lost child to the lost lovers, but child enough that the two of them did their best not to completely disappoint. If the annual Ray-Ben Christmas trip to San Antonio meant civil tongues in a sardine-packed pickup cab, then for the most part Ben and Traci were up to the challenge, even if it was the druthers of neither.

It was only two years after the firestorm of Ben and Cindy that Traci finally allowed her faithful acolyte access to anything beneath her nursely whites, only as a prelude to the San Antonio trips she agreed to make, and that only after the half case of Schiltz had sufficiently immobilized her restraint. The Traci eye that looks back at her in the mirror is the only witness that would admit that a few hours of hazy bounding with Ray are the sweetest of tiny remains of what still burns deep deep inside for her once sweet Ben Olson.

When it comes to the Texas trips, Traci would never allow herself to be charged with intent, but what to make of her yearly request for the week off leading up to Thanksgiving, when she knows the pickup and trailer that will be parked beside her Mazda every pre-holiday Friday at 3:30 in the afternoon? She’ll tell you it’s always her option to refuse the offers of beer and solemn groping, and yes, there was the year she did in fact decline, but that was the year of a strep infection that brought her to her knees. She had only been to the hospital to pick up her check that Friday. Feverish, she sat in her car for a full two hours after Ray drove off and put off the Schlitz until Thanksgiving itself, when she popped three turkey meals in the microwave and watched the Lions maul the Cowboys. By halftime, she was blitzed enough to call the corner store closest to Ben’s trailer in San Antonio, on the off chance he had just walked in. She made the clerk who answered check the aisles and bathroom three times before she would take “No, he’s not here, ma’am,” for an answer, but only after she extracted a promise to have Ben call collect if he ever came in. She then fell asleep on the couch until noon the next day—no recollection of the delirious call she had made.

For the record: Ben did not get the message, nor would he have called if he had.

If there were anything Ms. Nightingale might cop to, it would likely be to the charge of benignancy. His half case of Schlitz and three hours of relatively easy access to the Augmon grail was invariably enough to render Ray good for nothing more than a long winter’s nap. Though Traci didn’t know why Ben’s Texas trips were so important to him, she certainly knew that they were. That was reason enough to put her behind the wheel of Ray’s Dodge Ram for the Montgomery to Jackson leg of the trip. She hated herself more than just a little for doing so, but that usually only came after the Schlitz began to wear off and her feathery dreams of Ben were replaced by the sight of him through the Dodge window.

The annual delayed start of the Montgomery-Jackson leg invariably gave Ben abundant opportunity to suffer a repeated series of hypnagogic reenactments of the Ben-Traci-Cindy mudwrestle. Ben was sure that eternity would not be long enough to excise that emotional shrapnel. He preferred his reenactments outside, where the cold was built-in excuse enough for the accompanying bouts of shuddering. In the days with Melanie and the kids, the girls and little Van would make repeated trips to the front porch to bring him mugs of soup and hot chocolate, and blankets and more jackets, amused by and blithely unaware of the source of his tremens. Melanie did not join the fun, exiling herself instead to the bedroom to fume yet again about Ben’s latest Texas trip with the “lady in white,” as Van called her. And fuming not for the reason you might suspect, as Ben had never told Melanie of his seven years with Traci. And no, for those of you who are counting, there was not a marriage license to go along with the bright nativity of little Van.

Ben sat out on the stoop of his apartment building, rucksack and backpack full of books on the steps in front of him. The Brandon street was lifeless. Two of the apartments in the building were vacant; he and the owner Mrs. Calliwell were the only tenants. An X of blue Christmas lights in the Calliwell window flickered off and on behind him.

Ben first heard of the Texas gig back during his first two year solo stint. After Traci drove away from the duplex for Montgomery, he finally landed a job with Blackwell’s landscaping service in Jackson—grunt work, but something after the misery of the months with time on his hands. The old saw of one door closing and another opening felt like an ice needle in his temples when he reflected on the door he had just slammed shut.

The abuse he suffered while unemployed was entirely his own. Traci had never once taken him to task, could see that he was humping for jobs as much as possible, and frankly, given her salary, they were doing fine. Had they had kids, there might have been a readymade purpose for all the time on his hands, but there were none, and cooking and keeping up the house and yard could only go so far in helping Ben feel like he was contributing to their life together.

The downside of Blackwell’s was winter. Hank Blackwell warned him that, while he would keep him plenty busy most of the year, business started shrinking up around Thanksgiving, and folks were kept on through the lean months based on seniority. When Hank came to him that first November with his seasonal pink slip, he also had a lead on another seasonal gig. A friend of his had a regular stint down in San Antonio selling Christmas trees; he needed someone to run the lot, and stay there for security. Hank had talked up Ben for the job; it was his, if he could line up a trailer to camp out in.

Ben didn’t have the trailer, didn’t even have the truck to haul one, but Ray had both. It didn’t take much to convince Ray to make the trip and leave the trailer, though he wouldn’t stay for the duration. He didn’t need to; he was up in Atlanta selling real estate hand over fist. Thus began the pre-Thanksgiving tradition of hauling trailer and bizarre love triangle down to San Antonio, the semi-active two-thirds of the triangle hightailing it back east after setting Ben up on the lot.

Ray’s big blue Ram came jouncing down the street around midnight, just as Ben had predicted. Traci behind the wheel, Ray in the trailer sleeping off his double intoxication—booze and flesh, the latter indubitably the harder drug. One little warm death, indeed. Ray’s boat in the floodgates of Traci was a bone-shattering regatta. Warm, yes; death, undeniably. But nothing the least bit little about it.

Ben picked up his gear and walked to the truck. He banged on the side of the trailer—he expected no reply from Ray and got none. He stashed his things behind the seat in the cab and climbed in. The heat was blowing hot and Traci had her window cracked. She was ever mixing polarities. Still dressed in whites, barefoot, no stockings. She looked straight ahead as Ben settled in.

They crossed the Mississippi Bridge into Louisiana before anyone spoke. Traci took the exit for the rest stop, mumbled something about a piss, slipped on a pair of clogs and walked off. When she got back to the truck ten minutes later, Ben was behind the wheel and the window was rolled all the way up. Traci stood at the driver side door for a good minute, rubbing her arms before she climbed in on the passenger side. Ben was hoping she’d ride in the trailer with Ray.

“No such luck,” said Traci.

“No such luck, what?” said Ben.

“It doesn’t take much to read your face. If you’re so fired up to have me out of your way, there’s room back in that trailer for you too, you know.”

That stanza got them as far as Monroe, where Ben pulled off for his first coffee break. He was just heading for a filling station when Traci pointed to the Shiloh truck stop and said, “How about here?”

“I’m not hungry,” he said.

“Tell me something new. A piece of pie won’t kill you, and besides, I need to stretch. An extra thirty minutes won’t blow your schedule.”

“Can’t blow what’s already blown,” he said, but pulled into the Shiloh parking lot anyway.

Ben headed for the grill counter, but Traci pulled him over to a booth. He sat down and started flipping through jukebox pages until she stilled his hand. The waitress walked up with silverware and two glasses of water.

“Hey, y’all,” she said. “What can I get you?”

Traci smiled up at the woman. “Got any chocolate pie?”

The woman nodded.

“We’ll take two slices and two cups of coffee.”


“Black for me. Cowboy takes his white.”

The waitress walked off and Traci said, “Bee Gees’ greatest hits that interesting to you, Mr. Olson?”

Ben turned from the window and looked across the table. In the truck, looking at Traci out of the corner of his eye, he’d slapped the usual face on her, one he’d known for seventeen years now, with little variation. He knew she was a year shy of fifty, but she’d never looked like she was approaching anything more than thirty-five. Until now. What happens in a year, he thought. This was the first time that, had he guessed her age, he would have been guessing right in the neighborhood. Untinted gray at her temples, some fill in her face, a bit of sag along the line of her jaw. Eyes bright as ever.

“Behold the aging woman,” she said. “Collision course for fifty, I stopped trying. Works for your friend.”

“You in a white uniform works for Ray. The rest is lagniappe.”

“And you, Ben? What works for you?”

He turned his head back to the Bee Gees, one of their infernal lines trapped in his skull: I can think of younger days, when living for my life…

Eleven years gone, she could still feel him, still see his hiding places.

“How’s that baby of yours?”

He slipped out of the booth, nearly collided with the waitress. As she set the pie slices and coffees down, he walked back out to the truck and climbed behind the wheel. He watched Traci eat her pie and his, and then sit on, elbows resting on the table, two hands around her coffee cup. The waitress refilled her once, shared a laugh, and then set the bill in the middle of the table. Traci left the money there and disappeared from sight for another ten minutes. When she got back to the truck, she’d smoothed a good five years off the picture of herself across the booth.

“Innocent question, Ben,” she said. “No harm meant.”

Offer up your best defense…

The interstate from Monroe to Shreveport was dead, mortuary silence in and out of the cab. Traci could always match him, mood for mood, never a need to plumb a silence with chatter. She watched the trees go by, looked off into black distance, quietly mended bits from her broken dance with Ray back in Montgomery. Each new year she swore she would pass on the next half case of beer, gently but firmly decline the acolyte fingers plying her flesh, and most importantly, forgo the quick three day haul to Texas and back. Work a couple of weekend Baylor shifts, drive down to Dauphin Island or up into the Tennessee mountains—anything but this mired mess worthy of kids half her age.

They shot through Shreveport and dropped down onto the two-lane highway into Texas. The Louisiana leg was just a warm-up for the trek down the Palestine Highway through a falling line of domino towns into the big Texas night.

At Henderson, they passed an old fifties-style motel where they’d stayed on an overnight escape from Waco back to Jackson, two years into their bliss. During a six month stretch of temporary lunacy, Ray had convinced himself that Paige Taylor, his confidante from Waco High, repository of all his Traci-woe, was woman enough to fill up the Traci-sized quarry gouged deep in his heart. On a trip back to visit family, he’d run into Paige at a local club, both he and she wallflowers at a wet t-shirt contest—she too saddled with Baptist livery to submit to the evening’s baptisms (though not too saddled to fork over the five dollar cover), and Ray too stopped in his tracks by a blonde—and wet—bombshell who practically lapdanced her way to immortality with a mighty deconstruction of spill the wine, take that pearl…Neither Ray nor Paige saw each other until the lights went up at the fastidious Waco hour of midnight, both mistaking the evening’s sexual evasions as reason enough to fall into the back seat of Paige’s Ford Escort wagon for a two hour dalliance to which even the Reverend Billy Graham could have little objection, but warm and moist enough that both emerged from the back seat committed to seeing themselves through to climax and denouement, complete with the blessings of the State of Texas, Pastor Clark W. Hoffpauir, and the entire congregation of Lark Drive Baptist Church.

No surprise that Ben was tapped for Best Man duties, and no surprise that Traci would accompany him on the weekend trip over from Jackson. Nor should it have particularly surprised anyone that, upon sight of Traci in the third pew back on the groom’s side, Ray would interrupt his own solemn vows, and instead proclaim that there was no way in hell—all due apologies for making Jesus sad—he could possibly renounce his love for the Pre-Raphaelite (yes, those were his very words) beauty in a red dress that singed his eyes. The mad dash of Ray, Best Man, and Pre-Raphaelite beauty down the aisle and out the door was every bit as wild and chaotic as the closing minutes of Mr. Mike Nichols’ movie The Graduate, without the plucky sounds of Mr. Simon and his buddy Mr. Garfunkel doo-doo-dooing in the background.

Fled they did, those three, and did not stop to breathe until they hit their wall in Henderson and threw themselves on the mercy of the manager of the Oakwell Inn who rousted himself out of his own apartment to give them a place to stay, the Henderson metroplex having been overrun by a mighty phalanx of East Texas quilters. With the red-dressed Pre-Raphaelite on the other side of the check-in counter, it needn’t be assumed that altruism was the only managerial motivation at play.

(Lest your sympathies be inordinately tied to the spurned Ms. Taylor, a bit of narrative update is in order. It seems that Ray Barnes was not the only individual stunned into lapdanced catatonia that fateful boogie night in the Bible Belt Buckle. There was a stirring, a most unfamiliar stirring, in the bosom of Ms. Taylor as well. And when, the weekend after Ray’s precipitous departure, she was down at Beall’s Department Store exchanging her honeymoon suit for credit and chanced upon the catalytic blonde bombshell behind the Clinique counter—well, it was indeed a moment to rejoice in the strange and mysterious ways of the Lord. As Paige and her now longtime blonde companion Edna would no doubt affirm, straight may be the only legal direction in the State of Texas, but off the beaten path is more often the way the good Lord works.)

This soap opera of sand and fog that Traci and Ben typically played down the first leg of the Palestine Highway was always sorely tested once the Oakwell swerved into sight. There were, mind, trips where bitterness reigned, and the Oakwell sign was but a blip on the radar, one Bic lantern sputtering on a very dark night. But, there were other trips where, emotional shrapnel notwithstanding, the Oakwell was a flashpoint for the mirth that still lingered in the marrow of their bones—if not love, then a quiet understanding of years passing and scars slowly sanded away. This particular trip had all the earmarks of a Bic night, until the big Dodge unexpectedly swerved wildly across the northbound lane. No other traffic to contend with, but jolt enough, as the truck skidded to a stop on the gravel shoulder.

Ben was first out of the truck, followed by barefoot Traci. He tried to shoo her back in out of the cold, but she was having none of his hen-like behavior. No one emerged from the trailer, which had managed to jack-knife itself into the oncoming lane.

The front driver’s side tire was shredded. While Ben eased the truck out of harm’s way on the shoulder, Traci slipped inside the trailer to raise the dead.

She nudged Ray’s still sleeping head and said, “Where’s your jack, handsome?”

Still groggy, Eraserhead replied, “Jack? Don’t carry one. Never needed one.”

“Until now, you mean. You gotta nasty flat out there.”

“Damn. Where are we?”

“Henderson. As fate would have it, right in front of the Oakwell.”

Ray grinned, warming to the derailment. Not rocket science to follow his drift.

Traci said, “Soldier, your ration’s played out. And your buddy will be none too pleased to hear about your jacklessness.”

Ben stuck his head inside the door. He had a Santa-sized grin across his face.

“You still jackless, boy?”

“And ever shall be,” said Ray. “Why the hell do you think I carry triple A?”

They trudged up the hill to the Oakwell, rang the office door and were not at all surprised to see the bathrobed figure of their innkeeper from years past. Extra thirty pounds and hair thinning treacherously, big Karl Malden nose stuck on a mashed potato face. He looked at Ray and Ben as the intruders they were and then caught sight of Traci behind them, cinched up his sash and sucked in his gut. Smiled some sour teeth.

“Hell, I’d know that red dress woman anywhere,” he said. “Y’all still ain’t runnin’, are you?”

“Broke down. Monster flat,” said Ben. “Can we use your phone?”

“Sure. Only unless you’re calling Jesus, don’t expect to get through to nobody. In case you didn’t notice, it’s three o’clock in the morning, folks.”

Ray broke in, realtor inflections in his voice: “Triple A, Karl! I’ve got protection and service 24/7, my man!”

Big Karl winked at Traci, rasped the top of his right bare foot behind his left leg. “You’re welcome to the phone, but I should warn you—this is the AAA Bermuda Triangle. Phone’s on the counter. Y’all set a spell. Get you a co-cola?” Ben and Traci passed, but Karl dug one out for himself, popped it open and then rummaged around behind the counter. When Ray sat down from his call, Karl walked up behind him and tossed a room key on the couch between Traci and Ben.

“Guess we’re staying,” said Ray.

“How’s that?” said Ben.

Big Karl broke in, “Simon’s got the AAA call tonight.” He looked at Ray. “He offer you the deal?”

Ray nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

“Deal?” This from the chorus of Ben and Traci.

Big Karl: “Simon’s on call, but it just so happens that Joe Finley’s on the 7-on half of his 7-on, 7-off Border Patrol gig. Joe plays Wyatt Earp down in Eagle Pass for the week, and Simon plays house with Lady Kate Finley for a 168 hour marathon. You couldn’t crowbar Simon’s ass out of Miz Kate’s bed, if his own mother was flipped over and bleeding her way back to Jesus on the Palestine. He plays the odds. Anyone who calls after hours, he offers to set them up here until Kate’s off for her morning shift at the NAPA store. Put up a small bus full of basketball players, coaches, and trainers from Stephen F. Austin College one night just to keep his fork wet.”

“Jesus H,” said Traci.

Karl continued: “Oh, he’ll have you fixed up bright and early. Marathon’s fixin’ to end today, and Lady Kate’s usually over at the NAPA by seven. You’ll be outta here by eight—Simon’s good. Meantime, you’re welcome to the room—it’s paid for—or you’re welcome to join me for some cheese grits.”

Ray voted his stomach; Ben walked over to the room, while Traci clogged back down to the trailer for her travel bag. There were two double beds in the room. Ben sat in a chair, his feet propped up on the window sill, eyes closed. Traci took a hot shower and came back into the room in a pair of jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up. She’d had the shirt too long to remember that it had once been Ben’s.

Gideon was all there was to read in the room, and the TV was awash with cookware and Tupperware geniuses. She turned off the bedside lamp and sat in the dark, listening to Ben’s breath. She was a lousy nurse, but she knew the difference between sleep and possum. She threw a pillow his way.

“I don’t bite,” she said. “At least, not anymore.”

He’d already been shaken loose by the commotion with the truck; he wasn’t sure why he was back to his sour ways. It settled right back down on him the moment he saw the two beds and sat down in the chair.

He took a deep breath, wrenched words out of the pit where the rest of his shipwrecked self lay.

“The little man’s fine. Five now, already reading up a storm. Got his momma’s good looks.”

“And the books from his daddy.”

Ben stalled on the compliment.

Traci turned the light back on and tried to ease him past his discomfort: “Henderson must be a black hole. Throw out the cosmetics, and Big Karl hasn’t changed a bit.”

She saw the little feral boy peek out from Ben’s eyes—she’d once known his movements quite well, lured him out with her voice, fed him from her hand. She felt his pull, but she wasn’t sure it was her place to go there anymore. Before she calmed him all those years ago, he was a wild squirrel in the attic, crazed and frantic. Moments like these, free of the buzz of Ray-chatter, defenses down, the freeze frames of two heads in her bed almost—almost—ran to a blur of ink. She had no problem understanding the love she felt for this man when they were together; what she couldn’t fathom was the tenderness that came unbidden—most times, surmounting her willful refusal—for this demolition man who had all but destroyed her. Was she not far away enough? Was Montgomery too close? There were times she thought Atlanta, Raleigh, Virginia Beach. All with hospitals who said they’d take even her, with her sad sack withering skills, so-so evaluations, and recommendations full of backhanded and faint praise. She even made a trip up to Virginia, got as far as Charlottesville, walked around its pretty pedestrian malls, imagined herself living in streets full of gorgeous fall leaves, sat for hours in a coffeeshop, nursing a drink she couldn’t even pronounce, and then felt the unmistakable hook of that boy’s imploring eyes. She never made it to the beach.

In the old days, the boy would shiver. Sticky hot Mississippi summer outside, but inside shaking like an icy wind had just cut through the pine trees. Lying in bed, Traci would pull him in close to her, lying against his back, trying desperately to warm something frozen at the core of him, frozen beyond the reach of human touch. She might calm the shaking, but still feel the polar regions so far beyond her wingspan. In the evenings’ progressions, lovemaking may have entered the equation, but desire and sex were never at the heart of their anguished toil, not those nights.

She saw that the shaking had taken him over, and she felt a desolation in the room that could only have been his. She wished for desire—desire she could defy, strike down, nullify. Compassion was a godawful sticky mess, and she was sick of it. Compassion was a leash.

She moved to the bed at his side, and gently pulled him onto it with her. She reached down and pulled his boots off, then pulled the spread from the other bed over them. He rolled over, slid down a bit on the bed, and pressed his head up against her chest. Listened to the beat of her heart, heard the faint growl in her belly. And slept.

Ray found them there, still under their tent of covers, at eight o’clock on the dot. He was full of cheer and cheese grits and biting into a big unlit cigar. Such was his love for both Traci and Ben that their conjoined sleeping arrangement launched not a milligram of green into his bloodstream. Truth be told, he treasured every ounce of his boozy flouncing with Traci, but he had no delusions regarding his place in her life. She was still the sassy nurse who painted his dick bright green, albeit one with a precarious little soft spot. He realized, too, that even on her Mother Teresa charity list he still rated no more than an Honorable Mention, and that only with the sufficient lubrication of 144 ounces of Schlitz’s finest. As far as Ray could tell, no matter the extent of his crimes of passion, the man in her arms would always hold pride of place.

Traci felt the cool air coming in through the door and squinched her right eye open.

“Close the door, fool,” she said, adding: “And keep that damn thing unlit.”

Ray beamed as if she’d just stroked his fur.

“Wouldn’t think of burning this turd,” he said. “It’s my consolation prize from Karl.”

“Have we finally confirmed that his name is in fact Karl?”

“Not exactly. But he doesn’t mind my using it.”

“Consolation for what?”

“Bit of a misnomer, actually. Karl was the one needed consoling for a while there. A monumentally lousy poker player, though he persists in thinking otherwise. I won the Oakwell off him halfway through the pot of cheese grits.”

“You lose it back?”

“Gave it back. What do I want with a podunk motel? Karl may be a lousy poker player, but he’s a helluva whiner. Hence the Montecristo. I’m saving it for my wedding day.”

Traci grinned. “Only if your wife is a fool. Give me that thing.”

Ray handed his prize over to the inspector.

“A big fool,” said Traci. “Son, this is not a real Monte. Lots of forgeries out there. Count on Big Karl to have one.”

“What do you mean, not a real one?”

“Check the label.”

He did, and stuck it back in her face. “You going blind, Ms. A? That doesn’t look like Montecristo to you?”

“Oh, it’s Montecristo alright—only with an h. You’ve got a MontecHristo, not the real thing. I imagine Big Karl knows the difference. He doesn’t look the type to buy, much less pass out, the real thing. Wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even own the Oakwell.”

Ben poked his head out of the covers. “You girls about done with this spelling lesson?”

Traci looked him in the eye. The man was up; the boy was still sleeping. Ben pressed his palm in the middle of her chest before climbing out. Always his way of thanks.

She’d leached the poison for the meantime. Bed hair notwithstanding, there was the old Ben-spunk in his movements, a big grin on his face. Temporary amnesia, assuredly, a brief hiatus from the heaviness of Melanie and the girls and his bright baby boy.

“Simon got us up and running?” said Ben.

“Hot biscuits from Lady Kate to boot,” said Ray. “If Karl hasn’t snarfed them all by now.”

Big Karl swore innocence, though crumbs at the corners of his mouth said otherwise. Traci took the bag from his grip, tossed a “See you in another fifteen years, Karl,” over her shoulder as she walked out of the apartment lobby. Ray waved from the front door. He kept the faux-Monte as a memento of the easiest real estate he ever landed.

“Merle,” said Big Karl to the empty room. “The name’s Merle. Who the hell’s Karl, anyway?”

The three travelers piled into the truck together—Traci between the two boys and Ben behind the wheel.

“Where are we picking up the new spare?” said Ben.

Ray grinned big with the stogie clamped between his teeth. “Pilgrims,” he said, “we are ready for lift-off. Simon made good on the spare, too. Helps to have an accomplice over at the Napa.”

“Well done, Fergus,” said Ben, and they shot down the Palestine Highway.



Blogger Teresa said...

Well, this was fun. I take it the label has to do with nurturing Madonnas, Mary candles and goddesses? I'm so glad that you don't have anything to interfere with postings of Murat words and Murat wisdom!

11:26 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Teresa: A blogger on Christmas break, with a computer back from the car wash - now, that's a dangerous proposition.

And bosom for buddies, too.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

aah, but of course.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

You and Missalister have it all going on. Loving these characters and the taking and leaving they do to each other. I was there on the road leaving Shreveport heading into Texas but I turned off at Elysian Fields. Still the places and faces all sounded so familiar. How can you not love truckers, beer, and Texas. Throw in some cheese grits and I'm in love.
I will give all the music a listen later, I'll be cooking tomorrow. Baby boy turns twenty, mercy! Glad the computer is clicking along again. A good scrubbing and all is well?

10:03 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Dee: I'm sure I've said this many times before, but I love the Palestine Highway (better known as Highway 79; I'm not sure anyone in the world calls the Palestine, though it goes through there): the first time I drove down it was at Christmastime years ago, and dozens of farmhouses were decked out in all their Yuletide lights: very blessed and festive, and icy cold to boot.

Happy birthday to your bambino! We've assured Mr. Baby down here that he will always be Mr. Baby to his parents. But, how amazing is it that these boys were swimming around inside you and Tina not so long ago, the slumbering fish?

As for the computer, its owners had let its internal organs get very (very) (very very) dusty. Hence, the car wash. The good doctor assured us that a can of air every month or so would keep things spiffy, though the Mac is still on the wish list for the new year.

8:20 AM  

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