“You sure about this place, Lamar?” Upjohn’s squint through the windshield wipers only deepened the furrow between his bushy gray eyebrows.
“Sure as it’s rainin’. Problem?”
“Little ol’ Texas town like this? Like women’s nylons, Lamar. They either black, brown, or suntan. Ain’t up to no mix your own toffee color goin’ on.”
“You’ve been black since it was illegal, Upjohn. The county courthouse is across the street, and we’re close enough to civilization you can sit where you want. I’ve been plenty of places with you I shouldn’t have been. Come on. The peach pie with glazed walnuts will give you diabetes.”
“You told me they had themselves a chicken-fried steak sandwich worth the drive.”
“That they do. Worth bein’ thrown in shackles for. You bein’ Old Black Blues Upjohn and me bein’ seen with you. We make a fine pair of old jailbirds.” Upjohn could see Lamar’s smile reflected in the GPS screen.
“You understand, Lamar, I put enough gas in my car to run the air conditioner and carry me some cash money when Sonic brings steak sandwiches back every so often. They’re getting’ rare as hen’s teeth, everybody livin’ so damn healthy.”
“This place’ll put some serious hurt on Sonic.”
“That I can believe. This place bein’ all smiles for black folks, not so much. And I’m about to get wet, and I hate to get wet, so you’d best not be lyin’ about the sandwich or the pie.”
“Two, gentlemen? Little early for lunch, little late for breakfast.” She was petite, fifty something, still going on twenty. Tight t-shirt, tight jeans and all. “Table or a booth?” Lamar deferred, Upjohn took a table close to the noisy lunch counter that stretched across the back.
“Feelin’ any better?”
“There’s a black fella looks a lot like me back there cookin’ with those skinny tattooed kids, don’t know if I trust him or not. But these folks out here mix it up like we were in a real town.” He nodded toward a booth by the window. “Sixty years gone those two overalls boys mighta come to see me play and tried to lynch me after. They way too old to be dangerous now, so other’n that we’re okay. You like that waitress?”
“Could have been a cheerleader who never got over it that I went to school with. Her jeans get any tighter we can text 911 for a fire truck on that iPhone in her back pocket, next time she walks by. Cool you off a little.”
“I knew I taught you somethin’. I tell you I had Chesterfield stayin’ with me for a while?” They held up the menus, waited while the coffee slid in with the dinner rolls and butter.
“Nope. Chesterfield’s one from yesterday. He have a real name?”
“I never heard it if he did. Chesterfield was all there was. Chain smokin’ sax man. Orange fingers and orange reeds. Can’t believe he’s not dead and gone and buried in an ashtray.”
“He still keepin’ his clothes in the case with his sax?”
“Damn straight.” Upjohn chuckled, pulled a dinner roll apart. “Two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, a shirt and a cheap backup suit. Man lived his entire life like he was on the road.” He smoothed a knife full of butter on half the roll, tried it, talked through it. “Which he was. Road goin’ to nowhere when he called me.”
“I thought his kids left him a house somewhere. St. Louis, maybe.”
“No, that’s Clifton, the harelipped trumpet player with the crooked mustache, that’s who you’re thinkin’ about. But St. Louis, now, it was one of the places I recall had a real chicken-fried steak sandwich. Back then we had to wait for the white folks to go home to get one, but it was worth the wait. Other one worth eatin’ I remember was a little place on the barely legal side outside Altus, Oklahoma. Looked like a counterfeit Dairy Queen with a metal barn behind it. Gravel and grass and rust. The flyboys from that airbase would come in and drink, throw some dice, listen to us blow and talk up the hookers they rotated in out of Biloxi and N’Awlins. Kept those girls in the woods out back in an old Airstream set up on cinder blocks.” Upjohn spaced and Lamar could see a young Upjohn sitting in that Airstream, drinking cheap bourbon, smoking a cigar, playing cards and talking shit with the ladies till the sun came up. Upjohn drifted back, stuffed the remains of the half a dinner roll in his mouth. “Anyway, Chesterfield pulled up at my place for a couple of weeks. He moped a while, tightened up his money situation and got gone to Florida.”
“He have a story on how he got to where he was?”
“Nothin’ much to it. Told me someone stole – Good God amighty, Lamar.” Upjohn looked at the fried steak sandwich that had just landed, flashed his snap-in smile at the waitress. “Could you be as sweet as you are pretty and bring this old man a knife? A sharp knife?”
“My pleasure.” She smiled, big, walked away like she was on a mission.
“Upjohn, you’re gonna throw your neck out following that business.”
“Just seein’ if your goggles were on straight about the iPhone.” He waited for the waitress to smile again when she set his knife down, on a fresh napkin. “You’re an angel.” He watched her second retreat as closely as the first. “Jesus, Lamar. Only way to eat this damn thing is cut it in half.”
“I told you.”
“Didn’t tell me it was a goddam cow on a loaf of bread.” Lamar took the knife from Upjohn, split his own sandwich while they listened to the bus boy bang a couple of gray trash buckets of ice into the drink machine, watched a couple of furtive young waitresses hold their phones low behind the counter and try to text on the sly like the noise distracted everybody.
“You were sayin’ somebody stole somethin’ from Chesterfield. That why he was stayin’ with you?”
“Shit, Lamar. Nobody stole nothin’. Man’s too old to be shook up about how somebody stole his woman.”
“You told me once that any age is too old to be shook up about that.”
“True. Nobody never stole anybody’s woman that the woman didn’t want herself to be stole in the first place. They park themselves downtown on the front seat of an unlocked car with the windows down, dressed up and lookin’ for all the world like a handbag full of money or the only surviving bootleg tape of the Beatles reunion. I told Chesterfield it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d gone on and rolled up the windows, locked the doors and bought himself an alarm. Woman wants to be stolen, she’ll get stolen.” He used his thumb to stuff a thick tomato slice that was trying to escape back where it belonged between a lettuce leaf and the bun, stuck the gravy covered thumb in his mouth. “Now a man loses his guitar or his saxophone to leavin’ it out of his control, that’s stupid and larceny. Ain’t no man ever got a woman under control, no matter what he thinks. Time comes she gets herself stolen, ain’t no need to call the po-lice, either, ‘cause she was gone ‘fore she come off the front seat. Man needs to understand that as natural fact.”
“Good thing about bein’ a piano player. Nobody’s stupid enough to try and steal one.”
“No one with a lick of sense would steal a woman, either. She’s sittin’ there all lipsticked up, man should know it ain’t the first or last time. What looks like treasure just gonna find a new home it comes time to be stolen again.”
“Pie, gentleman?” She smiled, leaned into the back of an empty chair on the heels of hands, wrists out. “Oh my. You have a ways to go with that sandwich.” She put a hand on Upjohn’s arm. “Now, if you promise you won’t short my tip for not eatin’ all of it here, I’ll bring a to-go box. But you have to think about me when you have it for supper.”
Upjohn flashed his own store-bought smile again. “I have to tip you extra and ahead of time for that?”
“Don’t be silly. You only have to tip when you come see me. Which I know will be regular from now on, right? Pie?”
“Two. You got a scoop of butter pecan with my name on it in this place?”
“See what I can do.” She winked, squeezed his shoulder when she walked off.
“Upjohn? Damn man. You can’t ever eat pie without ice cream? And turn around. You’re gonna need a chiropractor when we get out of here.”
“Ice cream’s a requirement for restaurant pie. And that girl could sell ice to Eskimos, Lamar. Bet she’s been stolen more than a time or three. Back when? She could have played me like the radio while she was sittin’ there with the windows down, waitin’ to be snatched away.”
“Well, she’d have to. She couldn’t play you like the only Beatles Reunion bootleg tape.”
“How you figure?”
“There was never a Beatles reunion.”
“Maybe not.” He moved his napkin for the warm pie with a huge scoop of ice cream to land, turned around again. He turned back, wagged his fork at Lamar. “And maybe?” He nodded in the direction of their waitress who was off working the old overalls guys. “Maybe there was and it’s like that little waitress of ours and Chesterfield’s woman. It’s only a fact that tape ain’t available ‘till it turns up sittin’ on the front seat waitin’ to be stolen. Again.”