Hugger Orange

“Fuck…” Jackson planted his left foot, palms flat on either side of his gas cap, stepped into the push. “You sure the brake’s off, it’s out of gear?”

Dash leaned against the open driver’s-side door, flicked sweat off the end of his nose. “Tasks such as this are why auto-mobiles and I are currently at odds.”

“Fuck.”

“You ’bout in desperate need of a more di-verse and entertaining dialog. ‘Nother half a block, all we need.”

“You said that two, three blocks ago. Why the hell did we go to Venice Beach anyway?”

“I painted you a verbal picture of mustachioed muscle men in mi-nute elastic panties and beautiful women on roller skates in far less. You were overcome with a need to see those wonders for yourself. I was obliged to accompany, you a stranger in a strange land and all.”

“Fuck…”

“Must I admonish you further?”

“Whose idea was Ripple or whatever that was we put in the radiator?”

“The mixture of ‘whatever’ be a varietal blend of leftover fluids found in the Venice trash, and was installed under decree by committee. We come close to makin’ it, though.”

“Said the Titanic to the iceberg.”

“See what you come out with, you think on it?”

***

Jackson backed out of the passenger door of his dead ride with a shopping bag full of six years of console, under seat, trunk and glove box junk. He stepped away a few feet, took it in. All the memories. All the bullshit. There was still a quarter of a tank of gas in it. All he needed was a match.

“Somethin’ on your mind, Casper? I perceive a vibe that bodes ill for this sad piece of industrial sculpture.”

“Maybe we get a keg, throw a block party with a bonfire.”

“Block party in El Lay always a winning proposal. Famous bands and topless women a given. But an auto-motive bonfire spells R-I-O-T to the po-leece. We be fingerprinted and on Channel Seven ‘fore the fire’s out.”

“Fuck.”

“There you go again.”

“I can’t afford to fix it.”

“Don’t want to afford to fix it. Howsome ever,” Dash turned his palm up in a game show model’s ‘here’s your new washer and dryer’ move. “Even in its current immobile state ride still looks cock. If you will allow me to speak on your behalf with a brother I know who specializes in vee-hicular transactions I might persuade him to offer you a modest amount of cash or functional in-kind trade for your lifeless possession.”

“You have a friend who deals in dead cars?”

All kinds of cars. Magic is afoot in East Compton, my brother. Buster put a black Jag-u-ar in one end and a red Lincoln pops out the other. Same may be said of dead or damaged in, alive and well out. Shined all the hell up and runnin’? This’ll be seriously ripe for a low down and payments guaranteed to last longer than Star Trek reruns. Buster will perceive, as I do, that a Messican or pimply-assed kid will think their dick grew three inches they find themselves behind the wheel of this aww-toe.”

“He’ll keep it the same color? I’d hate to —”

“Output color depends entirely on condition and Buster’s means of acquisition. It’s legal and wrinkle free. Only his feelings on Day-Glo Orange come into play.”

Hugger Orange.”

“Nigger, please. A rose by any other name, we understand each other?”

***

Jackson followed Dash down from the wrecker cab in a swirl of east Compton dust. Dash took a fistful of cash from a tall, skinny kid with red eyes and an eighteen inch ‘fro, disappeared through a heavy, steel-clad door. A few long minutes passed and from the minor sea of Quonset huts and rutted gravel a primer coated 1964 Impala SS with shiny bumpers, pimp wheels and zero trim pulled up purring smooth and low like a fat cat in a circle of sunshine. A sweaty, wiry gray-haired black man in grease stained pin-stripe overalls stepped out, leaving a hint of Bay Rum and an old time barbershop in his wake.

“You bein’ the only thing white I see ‘sides the garage door, this’n must be yours.” He stepped around, popped the hood, spit tobacco juice in front of Jackson’s feet. “Supra Sport Shivvies came stock with a 409. Big and dumb as our current crop a heavyweights. I put this new 327 crate motor in yestiddy. Old with no blue smoke keeps the gov’nor happy an the po-leece away. Break ‘er in easy she’ll stay that way. ” He dropped the hood, wiped his hands on the red shop rag hanging from his back pocket, spit again. “Small block’s lighter, lets you keep some rubber on the tires, drives past a gas station ‘casionally. Axe me, rides some better, too, all that weight gone. Had in mind to paint it, but you come along.”

He paused, examined Jackson like a man encountering a disease. “Air conditioner blows cold, no back seat, no radio. No charge for the trunk mount spare cover. It come in from somewhere, don’t fit nothin’ else, tired a walkin’ around it.” He held up the keys, dropped them so quick Jackson almost missed the mid-air save. The old man nodded, spit another stream of tobacco juice. “The Dash be along drekly with paper an plates.”

Jackson watched the man walk away, his bowlegged side to side gait kicked up light puffs of gravel dust, a walk punctuated with an off-beat sway of the shop rag hanging from his pocket and an every fourth step spit. “Nice to meet you, too.”

***

“Needs paint. Legal, mostly. Nothing due, no change, even up.” Dash put his hands on the door sill. “You an Ellis get on?”

“You mean the old guy who spits redneck diarrhea, no. No handshake, no thanks. No take it easy, no fuck off kiss my ass honky punk. Must’ve left all that in the same place as the back seat and radio.”

“No radio?” Dash’s head rolled back. “Muh-ther fuh…” He tossed the plates and registration on the passenger seat, went back through the heavy door, wasn’t gone long, wasn’t happy coming out. He landed in the seat, right leg still out, hand on the door. “Hang left, follow the drive around back. Stop where I tell you.”

Jackson stopped on command, Dash slid out, vanished behind a corrugated metal door, was back in under thirty seconds with a nearly new Delco combo radio and cassette player from a Cadillac. He eased back into the passenger seat, set the radio where the back seat should have been. “Radio’s for the shit paint job. I told the motherfuckers, you know, I be ridin’ in this aw-toe and you were cold as ice. Next thing I’m back, askin’ all them old domino an Jack niggas sittin’ around, you know, what’s their fuckin’ damage, where’s my fuckin’ radio? They tryin’ to fuck a brother ‘cause I brought a deaf dumb and blind cash money client to their criminal empire? Motherfuckers. ‘Take the deal, fool, you an the ghost take a walk’? Fuck they doin’, talkin’ that shit to me? Thinkin’ I didn’t come up in here, don’t know their shit?” He took a breath, smacked the door sill. “Fuck it. You drive, I’ll di-rect. Weekend comin’, college calls on Monday an I need some unwind time. You’ll be droppin’ me down to Lakewood at my little slice of heaven’s place. I’ll draw you a map home from it on the way.”

Jackson drove south out of east Compton, Dash ranted on Buster’s crew like they were his dysfunctional family while he took a BIC Stick and drew a map on a paper napkin that would have done a retentive Renaissance mapmaker proud. He had Jackson roll up slow on a semi-residential, semi-small business street in Lakewood and stop near the middle of the block.

“You get to the crib, call your people. Tell ‘em you’re alive and where you’re at, how wonderful your new friend Dash Man be. ‘Cause if San Andreas opens up an your white ass drops they can tell the bloodhounds start lookin’ for you in Long Beach. They need to find you and this ray-dee-oh on the west side, don’t need nobody sniffin’ around my shit in Compton. Least till Buster’s player’s caught some chill.”

“Anybody. You don’t want anybody, or anyone, sniffin’.”

“You gonna be the grammatically co-reckt English Nazi all the fuckin’ time? I thought you played music or some shit.”

“Habit. Can’t get sloppy. People take you more seriously when you don’t talk like a refugee from a corn field full of single-wides.”

“Your accent don’t clean up soon you’re gonna need all the help you can get you expect to gain some on serious.”

“Doesn’t. Not don’t. Accent doesn’t clean –”

“We have arrived, Jeeves. I doesn’t require your services any longer,” he interlocked his fingers, popped his knuckles. “You straight on how to get to the crib?”

“Yeah. And ‘don’t.’ That one was ‘don’t.’ Like that shit’s bad for your hands, don’t.”

“Get back to me, I ‘don’t’ got room in my head for any of that shit today. You know where the stash is. Blank’s for the drive.” Dash tossed a thin black cigarillo on the empty bucket seat, lit one of his own and walked away. Jackson leaned over to pick it up, looked out the window and damned if they hadn’t pulled up in front of a beauty shop called Little Slice of Heaven.

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Turd in the Punchbowl

I went back and forth with Galby68 about the music genome and how the stupidest songs show up in the wrong places – This is also the opening of Land Run, which I can’t seem to finish, other bits are strung out in here under Say Hey, Neighbor

Brad Davidson shuffled through the half dozen cell phones on his desk, picked one, flipped through a couple of screens, tapped once and waited “Harli? Hon, got a minute?” Seconds later the door of his office banged open.

“Daddy, what?” An obviously peeved early twenties female stepped inside, pointed her phone at him. “I’m in the room next door. Text me if you can’t get up, or use the phone system intercom. You don’t need to fucking call me.” She made a production of hanging up on him by mashing her finger on the glass face of her phone before she parked it in the back pocket of her sprayed-on torn knee jeans.

He’d given up on the fat fingers and auto correct excuses. It was easier to push “College $ Pit” in his recent list and talk. “Lookit this, Harli.” He handed her a dog eared, recycled manila folder stuffed with what he’d been reading about his upcoming guests. “Tell me what you think.”

She stood in front of his desk and studied the paper hand off for several minutes until she pulled the chair up with her foot and sat. She grouped the papers between her fingers while very low volume Kenny G on the Pandora channel that was pumped throughout Bumpers Erotic Resort drifted in the open window. She set the stack down on on his desk, held one paperclipped set back, screwed up her mouth for a second, let it go.

“M’kay. The investment guru might be good for stock tips. And there might be some lightweight ‘favors’ in the form of low or no interest financing from the international banker being here with his daughter-in-law’s sister when he’s supposed to be in Bali on business. The tobacco farm heir and his lingerie model bride, the New Orleans cop and her boyfriend, and the chubby early retirees with a lottery annuity from Tennessee are all your standard kink experimenters. But this one? Randall Everitt Coleridge the Third, 37 and his wife Lora Lee Worthington-Coleridge, 35? All kinds of wrong, all kinds of ways.”

“That’s the one. How do you see it?”

“Looks like Randall the lawyer pushed the envelope too hard one too many times and their business took it in the butt. Now he’s dumping his wife and running off with the freshly re-boobed real estate agent who happens to be his partner’s wife. He’s using her to sell his and his partner’s houses out from under his wife and the partner. He’s liquefied his savings and retirement and borrowed one point five mill against what’s left of the business assets. Company cars, office trailers, some big diesel pickups and a small, two-story glass box office building. If his partner’s wife doesn’t fuck him the hard way and run with the money at closing? They end up with over six million in cash and a grass hut in Samoa.”

“Repercussions?”

“Taxes are pulled on the front end of the cash-outs, so the plan’s not likely to aggravate the government. Screwing your partner and his wife isn’t illegal. The bank can scapegoat the partner or repossess the assets. If no one dies, it’s honeymoon time.” She cocked her head slightly, listened. “Toto? Tell me how Toto gets into the hot tub channel?”

“Pandora has the same problem finding good help that the rest of us have.”

“I doubt Pandora has an ‘all females except your daughter work naked’ requirement.”

“Maybe they’d get people who knew Toto wasn’t Jacuzzi Jazz if they did. And panties or bikini bottoms required on the non vinyl doesn’t equate to naked. It would cost me a fortune to keep the upholstery clean if everyone just sat around naked. What about the borderline indigent California videos of houses fool?”

“He’s the turd in the punchbowl. He’s working for both wives on the real estate front and he worked for the dipshit lawyer once before, and maybe now. The beard makes him look like a fur-lined salad plate and his eyes say gay, not skirt hound, but I think he’s just a California weed basted pansy. He wants to do exactly what you want to do. Stand under the window and catch the briefcase full of money and exert as little effort as possible doing it, maybe get laid in the process.”

“So?”

“So wait. See where the loyalties lie. If video boy is all about himself, you can manage a short skirt distraction with one of your employees for a grab and go. If his heart beats for the soon to be lonely housewife or he can’t get the money away from the lawyer’s squeeze before they leave town he’ll definitely be here for the money, maybe the lonely wife if he can pull it off. If this is where the dump takes place.”

“The lawyer needs to wait for the money somewhere. He’s booked in here in a few days with the wife and has another room booked at Sandals for the partner’s wife. ‘Here’ is the dump and jump point so the money has to show before they can blow. Any issues with the partner and the dumped wife?”

“The partner is a brick in workboots and a gimme cap. He’ll take the hit, go bankrupt, start over and never look back expect to spit. He’s the least of your problems. The wife…Artsy fartsy. She’s got something up her sleeve with the video loser because they talk too often and aren’t having sex. From your reports she’s talented and popular and squeaky clean, but not a real Town and Country on the coffee table Stepford wife. Like a Little Debbie’s spice cake with a big smile, in sensible heels who can paint and take or leave the high life. From the reports video boy sent back to her husband from San Francisco last year, it’s obvious he fell for her, hard. We’ll have to wait and see if he’s a love or money person. You didn’t see all that?”

“I sent you to college to figure out things like this for your dear old dad.”

“When I go back in the fall and finish my Masters, dear old dad can retire or see if one of his whores can use a calculator. Or pay a fucking accountant because I’m gone. To where people have normal, monogamous sex that doesn’t require a Teflon covered altar or Kahlua or honey or walnut pieces or whipped cream or an audience of overweight kinksters.”

“You forgot fresh fruit. And you sound just like your mother sometimes, you know that? There’s nothing wrong with a little –”

“Shut up dad, this place is like the capital of planet disgusting. When I saw mom at spring break she said to make sure I told you to go fuck yourself.”

“If it were possible to stream Baywatch re-runs all day long and do what your mother suggests I would sell this place tomorrow. Go up there, put eyes on the punchbowl turd and the real estate agent with new boobs, watch the closings. Keep me in the loop. Take one of the ladies with you in case they split up.”

“Dad, I’m not taking one of your ridiculous, scalpel sculpted, can’t wear clothes man candy mannequin whores to where? Okla-fucking-homa? To keep me company? She’ll stick out like a, a…”

“Like a whore in Oklahoma? Take Maddie, she does the upscale housewife fantasy better than anyone. Put her in something country club tweedy, pull her hair back and she’ll look just like the rest of them.”

“The rest of the whores or the rest of the locals?”

“If you can figure out the difference in the neighborhood you’ll be in, write a book.”

Certificate of Authenticity

When she saw the Welcome to Umbridge Enterprises sign, painted in a trendy whitewashed font on a plank sign on the side of the two lane, Annabelle whipped the rented Grand Cherokee across a small sea shell parking area in danger of being overgrown by saw grass, parked between a faded used-to-be-red Ram pickup and a new, black Mercedes SUV. She put her right hand in the square red leather shoulder bag, took the safety off her Glock, stepped out into the bright Florida sunshine.

She started across the fifty-foot arched wooden bridge paved with asphalt shingles that led to an unpainted, faded cedar shake façade manufactured home surrounded by a covered veranda that sported a random collection of patio and beach furniture and a pair of rusty propane grills. The waist high ballustrade was draped with fake fish nets, adorned with faded plastic starfish and seahorses. The whole mess sat on pilings over the St. Johns River narrows and tied to a floating dock behind it was her missing white Swamp Vue Cabrio.

***

Preston Umbridge clicked the remote, brought up the four-panel screen of security cameras on the wall mounted TV. “Either of you two pig fuckers order up a jigaboo hooker?”

“What the fuck, Boss? Fella was about to nail him a big ass gator an – whoa shit,” the dirty wife beater and camo cargos clad Pillsbury dough boy on the couch sat up. “Who the hell is that?”

“No shit ‘whoa shit’ Wally. Fuckin’ dumb ass.” The tall bony guy pulled on his waders, pointed at the screen. “That’s the nigger woman we done stole the boat from, that’s who.”

Umbridge dropped the remote on his desk. “You’re telling me you two idiots was so obvious stealin’ that boat a woman could find it? Shit.” He ran his hands over his hair and beard, wiped his lips with his thumb and forefinger. “Don’t just stand there, Steep, let her in ‘fore she breaks the goddam door down.”

Annabelle, black leggings and long tailed black silk blouse, matching red heels, earrings and purse stepped into the man cave of Umbridge Enterprises. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Annabelle Monette. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

Umbridge stood behind his desk, undisguised snicker in his voice. “Preston Umbridge, may-am.” He bowed. “To my right is Mr. Walrus. My associate Mr. Steeple let you in. Without an appointment.”

“I make my own appointments. Walrus I understand. Too much mustache, belly and ugly. Steeple makes no sense to me.” She studied the man walking back toward his boss. “Beanpole, maybe.”

“Now, now. Legend says Steep’s sainted Momma christened him with it just before she died, lookin’ out the hospital window at the First United Methodist Church of Mun-row bell tower.”

“I had an Ontie named Iris and she told the same story about flowers in her momma’s garden. We could go on about the Indian named Two Dogs Fucking in the Mud but let’s not waste each other’s time, gentlemen. I have come for my boat.”

“I’m sure we don’t have ‘your’ boat.” Umbridge tugged his longish manicured beard, puffed up. “And if we did, I doubt we’d return it. Things that end up here are like gifts. Or tithe offerings. Ain’t that right boys?”

“It’s the white Swamp Vue Cabrio tied off next to two patent and intellectual property theft counterfeits. Both to be confiscated and destroyed as contraband. The Swamp Vue is not now, nor was it ever, a gift.”

“The white one?” Umbridge put a point on ‘white.’ “That’s different. Lessee, Cabrio, Cabrio…I recall having a Bill of Sale for that somewhere.” He made a show of opening and closing drawers.

“Never you mind looking for it. I have an equally legitimate certificate of authenticity for the lock of our Lord and Saviour’s hair my Ontie Delores keeps in a Café Du Monde coffee tin and prays to five times a day.”

“Ain’t nothin’ any of us can do about our families, is there?” He slammed  the drawer he had open. “I also seem to recall Larson makes theirselves a Cabrio. Whattaya think it’s worth to them to find out about yours?”

“I’ve spoken to them and all the lawyers are satisfied that as I do not manufacture mid-cabin drug-running speed boats there is no conflict. That’s how it is when people cooperate. Had you come to me with a franchise manufacturing offer we might have bypassed all this unpleasantness. I am not a fool, Mr. Umbridge. After I talked to your local people, showed them the manufacturing paperwork, patent applications, all more than most around here could read in a lifetime I concluded that I needed to look elsewhere for assistance in recovering my property. And to come see for myself what a genuine corrupt, low life thief and liar Floor-ida bad man looked like.”

Walrus flicked open a three-inch lock back pocket knife, cleaned his index fingernail with it. “We don’t cotton to name callin’, now. Smokes and O-yays particular doin’ that shit ain’t seen much of after.”

“Where I came up in Detroit my momma’s paperboy was more dangerous, and considerably smarter than all three of you put together. I’m not here to get in a pissing contest with some Little Dick-ey Mafia fiefdom, I’m here for my boat and to bring you the gospel according to Annabelle Monette.”

Umbridge held out an arm to stop Walrus. “Which would be?”

“Not everyone is scared of you Mr. Umbridge. Least of all me. Come hell or high water, with or without your blessing, I will sell boats in central Florida.”

Walrus took a step. Without looking Annabelle pointed her non-purse hand at the television. “While we’ve been having our little chat, those gentlemen arrived to pick up my boat and destroy your copies.”

“What the hell?” Umbridge pulled a revolver from his desk drawer. “You two, what the fuck do I pay you for? Go stop those mother –”

“I wouldn’t. Those are Federal Marshalls. From Miami. Looking for you to give them a reason to level this place once I am safely out the door.”

“She’s fuckin’ lyin’.” Walrus took another step Anabelle’s way and one of the counterfeit Swamp Vues below went ka-whoooom. The explosion sent a geyser of water and debris up past the sliding patio doors at the back of the office, rained down on the roof.

Steeple slid the patio door open, leaned out over the veranda rail far enough to see the brown-water gun boat, look down the barrels of its 50-caliber machine guns. “She ain’t lyin’, Wally.” He glanced down further, counted at least eight red laser-sight dots on his chest, and froze. “No fuckin’ shit she ain’t lyin’.”

“And wired, too. Goddammit.” Umbridge grabbed Steep by the back of his fishing vest. “Git back in here ‘fore you piss yoursef.” He turned a red raged face at Annabelle. “We’ll continue this discussion, Annabelle Mo-nay. Soon.”

“My door is always open, gentlemen. If you come, wear shirts with sleeves. I only need to see three cheap, dirty white men in cheap, dirty wife beaters one time to know it’s not an experience I choose to repeat.”

Grab My Purse

It was nice to have Bobby and Annabelle back, thou, trapped in a warehouse fire by a ruthless Dixie Mafia type who doesn’t want Swamp Vue to sell enclosed swamp cruisers in the Everglades. If you read this from book two you’ll know what happens. Without further ado, the edited version –

The sixty-foot-long string of fire along back wall of SwampVue’s old galvanized odds and ends warehouse didn’t go up with the special effects wooomph Bobby thought it should have. It wasn’t all that big yet, either, just a trickle of fire across the bottom.

“Those two sonsabitches.” Annabelle pulled a Glock 26 from her purse, set it on one of the overturned buckets they’d been using for chairs.  She stepped into a black fire-retardant mechanics jumpsuit she’d found a box full of them in the warehouse, zipped it, pocketed the Glock.

“You figure they knew we were in here?” Bobby zipped into his own jumpsuit.

“The fire was supposed to be a warning, Bobby. You and me being here is gravy.”

“Maybe we don’t need to sell boats in Florida. Maybe we should talk –”

“Selling boats in Florida is a distant second to ‘maybe’ we should think about how to get out of here before we go well done. That fireline sayin’ to you ‘c’mon out y’all, let’s all have us a lemonade and a chat?’” She scanned the warehouse. Buckets of Bobby’s wrong kind of paint, pallets of Bobby’s pre-Annabelle reclamation material runs from the Katrina salvage yard. Senior Eldridge’s Swamp Vue customized tractor. Big, rusty industrial tools and conveyor runners stripped from the old machine shop that was now Swamp Vue Building A. She looked up at the sprinkler heads doing nothing, knew the Matchstick Men had shut off the water. “Mr. Preston fucking Umbridge and crew have gone from being pains in our asses to dangerous. Where’s my idea boy?”

Bobby had  been walking the warehouse while they talked, came back and yanked the canvas sailcloth off his dead in the water project car that had been rolled into this warehouse with all his other unfinished projects.

“What the hell is that?”

“Half a plan? It was a Ford GT, before Katrina. When I got it most of the aluminum was gone. I’d thought about turning it into a marketing car, like the beer companies have? Half GT on the front and over the engine in back I wanted a small, high gloss wooden pickup bed. Unless we could do the front end like a baby ’57 Fleetside maybe. You know –”

“Bobby, goddammit, brevity. Does it run?” She waited, eyed the fire climbing the back wall, sweat glistening on her forehead.

“Hell yeah it runs.”

“And the half a plan?”

“We could drive it out, or, or…”

“Bobby, it’s a NASCAR grade go kart. Walk, or drive out in that thing, front or back, they’ll pick us off.” She thought for a minute. “Start it. Point it at the front, tie the wheel down.” She could feel Bobby hesitate. “Bobby? Listen up, baby. If this works? I’ll put a four-man team on the damn thing until it’s right. Set it up, start it.” She hit him with the scare a voodoo priest eyes, walked to a pallet of acetone cans and picked up two in each hand, took them to the back wall. When she heard the GT go-kart roar to life she stacked the cans in the flames, backed away in hurry. She pulled the pistol, held it two handed, looked over her shoulder at Bobby and raised her chin.

Bobby jammed a piece of re-bar between the accelerator pedal and the seat on the GT, flipped the transmission paddle to D, Annabelle shot the bottom can of acetone. The GT screamed through the front wall at the same time the acetone cans blew a hole in the back. She grabbed Bobby, pulled him down behind a pallet of junk aluminum while front and back the pop…pop pop and brrrrappp of gun fire punched holes in the galvanized tin that turned the moonlit warehouse into a redneck planetarium.

The shooting stopped, a couple of long minutes passed, Bobby and Annabelle drenched with sweat, each watching the black holes in the warehouse. Someone out back hollered “Anybody still alive in there won’t be fer long.”

***

Leading with an AR-16 the one called Walrus stepped through the acetone hole, Bobby hit him in the face with a shovel. Annabel grabbed the gun before he hit the ground, frisked the prone Walrus and came up with two more clips.

“Jesus.” Bobby looked down at Walrus and back to Annabelle and the rifle. “You know how to use that, too, huh?”

“Afghanistan. By way of Detroit. Help me.” They hog tied Walrus in an upward arch, ankles and wrists together, stuffed a rag in his mouth when he came around enough to make noise. Annabelle handed Bobby the Glock. “You know how to use one of these?”

“Since I was six. We’d go trollin’, Daddy’d get drunk and put me on gator –”

“Bobby? Jesus, boy. Count to thirty, empty that pistol through the front. Then drag his sorry ass up there and wait for me.”

“What if they see you?”

“You have to be kidding me.” Annabelle held out her arms, assault rifle in hand. Black woman, black overalls, night.

“Right.”

Bobby counted, wiped his sweaty hands on his jumpsuit, emptied the clip through the hole his GT had made. There was a round of pop pop…pop pop pop that punched a few more holes in the front of the warehouse, a man’s voice called out for Walrus. There was another pop, louder, closer.

“Get on outta there, Bobby,” Annabelle, her voice raised. “Grab my purse on your way to the water valve.”

***

Bobby stopped his two-wheel dolly next to Annabelle’s tumped sideways wheel barrow, stood it up and Walrus, screaming behind the rag in his mouth fell on the Swamp Vue dock next to his partner.

“You put gas in the tow skiff?”

“Yes ma’am.” Bobby nodded to the far side of the dock. “That red Bandit four-seater set up for water test is a lot faster.”

“I’m not looking for speed. I think a nice, slow moonlight ride under the Spanish Moss might give these gentlemen a chance to reflect on the errors of their ways.” She looked at the two Matchstick Men, trussed up like Houdinis in a mixture of chain, rope and wire. “Besides, they’re bleeding and the skinny one vomited himself over the hole I put in his shoulder.” The burning warehouse reflected in her eyes. “And I’ll be godammed if these boys’ll ruin any more Swamp Vue inventory.”

Bobby helped her roll Walrus and Steeple unceremoniously from the dock into the green, slimy bottom of the tow skiff, both men wild eyed and squirming, still trying to holler through their gags. Bobby untied the skiff, watched Annabelle kick the Merc outboard up and disappear into the swamp.

***

Sheriff Wylie pulled up by the dock, joined the flashing light show of Terrebonne Parish emergency vehicles surrounding Swamp Vue’s back warehouse. He climbed out of his cruiser, met with a fireman who talked for a minute before he went back to his truck.

“I declare, Bobby B,” Wylie pulled his Smokey the Bear hat, wiped his forehead. “Seems ain’t no kinda shit can be got up to foreign to anywhere you’re at, boy.” He reset the hat, tweaked it. “Where’s Ms. Annabelle Mo-nay?”

“She, uh,” Bobby felt the weight of the canvas bag in his hand, heard Annabelle asking him if gators’d eat anything, how she’d heard a story about somebody cutting a gator open and finding a pocketwatch. “She took the tow skiff out. To clear her head. All the chemicals…”

“That right? Big city lady knows her way around the bayou now, does she?”

“GPS.”

“Mmm.” Wylie walked to the warehouse, frowned at the puddles under his shiny boots, wrinkled his nose at the smell of smoldering paint, burnt rubber. They both watched the firefighters rolling hose for a few. “Late start on the sprinklers, huh?”

“Valve stuck.”

“You don’t say. Head honcho Fire fella told me this mighta been arson.” He poked a stubby finger through one of the bullet holes. “Y’all got any problems I need to know about?”

“No sir.”

“The bag?”

“This? Oh, uh, just some, uh, lost and found.”

“Sure ‘nuff?” Wylie shined his high-power penlight into the bag. “Lessee now. Coupla phones. Coupla belts with big fancy buckles like them two slicks outta Florida was wearin’. The ones been hangin’ to the 76 truck stop talkin’ up the waitresses and hookers how they’re big shot Matchstick Men? Two wallets. A watch, an en-graved pocket knife,” he turned it over under the penlight, “to Walrus from LuLu. Makes you wonder about people, don’t it? A three-inch wood handled lock-back gizzard splitter. A baby Colt semi, looks like a 380. Car keys on a key ring fulla those grocery store cards. And you got nothin’ to tell me?” He shined the light on a cluster of bullet holes and moved it to Bobby’s face. “No problems? You sure?”

“Yes sir, I’m sure.” Bobby pointed to his GT, a 427 engine on a bent aluminum frame embedded in a giant old cypress. “We’re gonna fix that GT up right, put the logo on it, haul it to boat shows. And Ms. Monet thinks after tonight Swamp Vue’ll start selling more boats in Florida.”

“No doubt.” Wylie dropped the wallet he’d opened and gone through back in the bag. “Fact is I’d bet on it.” He walked back to his cruiser, tossed his hat on the passenger seat, leaned on his open door. “You be sure to give Ms. Mo-nay my regards.” He put a foot in the cruiser, stopped his descent. “Y’know, Bobby, she might give me a holler sometime, she’s of a mind. Tell her lunch is on me.”

Mescaline Blue – 2 -Baby, You are Mine

What the hell, it’s Friday. I went to the museum with small grandkids, stared at Monets and a late Van Gogh (Paris) and noticed even in their minor work that at least they were brave. So here’s some run-on two people standing around talking ’bout nothin’ ‘cept insecurity, replete with era-accurate cultural sexism backstory and background noise. 

Jade saw the flashing light that these guys used for a studio doorbell, sighed, clipped the tape measure to her tool belt. She’d let herself in at six-fifteen with the key and alarm code Jackson had given her, walked and measured the space a dozen times, made and thrown away as many sketches, and had a lock on what needed to happen. And here was that fricking man shit she always had to get past just to get her job done. Why did they all need to talk about how they knew everything when most of the time they didn’t know shit? She turned the deadbolt and let him in.

Jackson was holding two coffees from the Exxon station and looked reasonably relaxed for a guy who had driven through L.A. at seven-thirty in the morning.

She mumbled “Thank you,” couldn’t look at him, felt her ears start to burn. Dammit. She squatted, set the coffee on the floor and measured a point on the floor from the far wall she’d measured a dozen times, stayed there staring at the tape measure and stood up. She repeated the process several times around the room.

Jackson noted the precise marks where the dust had been cleared, the half wall he’d built had a big X on it, made with the masking tape that was gone from where he’d laid out the small kitchen. All the response he could get from his questions were mono syllables and “Mmm.” He put the tip of his Converse on her tape measure.

“I didn’t hire you to agree with me, or ignore me pretending to measure what’s already measured. I’m just some guy. You have opinions, let it go.”

She stood up, made a note in the small steno pad with “AIR BISCUIT STUDIO” written on it in marker, flipped back to the first few pages.

“There’s no flooring, sir. How do I address that? Guess? A furniture grade ‘removable’ table top for a pool table that will weigh a frickin’ ton? That maybe you can play ping pong on because I have Jade’s secret miracle coating to finish it with? A kitchen laid out in the middle of the room where there’s no plumbing? I’m not selling Feng Shui, but common sense is a good idea.” She squinted, pointed her pencil at the top of the far wall. “You have those nice, high transom windows that could use a cleaning, and nothing. No trim, not even mentioned. The only thing you’ve written down are pipe dreams, and almost everything you’ve done so far that I don’t need to do again is the big bathroom that’s probably been here since Eisenhower drove a Jeep. You actually ate in here?” She pushed the rickety card table with a boot. “This is all men, right?”

“No, but females stayed on the other side of that insulated door unless they needed the genderless powder room that had walls until I took them out. If they wanted to eat we moved the card table into the control room. There was a long, hollow wall right here, all the way to the front door. Before I took it out —”

“It hid all of this dusty air and those beautiful east windows. You also spec’ed ‘A chill and reception guest seating kind of area’ isolated from the rest of the place by a forty-eight-inch-high half-wall. ‘With maybe plants or a planter.’ Why not a fricking aquarium like my dentist’s office or every Chinese place in town that gurgles and makes everyone need to go pee? All you’re missing is giant Legos or Lincoln logs and Tigger on the wall and it’s every pediatrician’s waiting room in California. Is that what you’re after? Little boys waiting for their turn at whatever the real toys are back there?” Uh-oh.

“No…No. Open. I wanted it to all feel open, and multi-use. I read that somewhere, about open, multi-use rooms and —”

“Stop reading or read something besides suburban housewife throw-pillow decorating magazines. For a client with a nice space who says ‘open’ a lot you have sectioned off all your ‘open’ into several smaller one-shot rooms. No walls and chaos isn’t ‘open.’” She made finger quotes every time she said “open.”

“What you’re trying to tell me is whatever I built already is bunk and that you have a better idea for the kitchen and the pool table and all the rest of it?”

“Yes sir. We can re-use most of your’bunk’. At least you kept it to standard lengths and didn’t anchor them or hang sheetrock.”

“I built them like gobos, or room dividers. I was waiting on an electrician to tell me what —”

“Wait a little longer and let me talk to someone who knows the codes. Where are we, Silverlake? East Hollywood? Do you even know?” She bit her lip after that one. Her mouth had gotten her fired before, particularly when she had the plan in her head already, got wound up and in some man’s shit when she’d rather be working than talking.

He snorted, shook his head. “Silverlake, commercial. We’re code correct, except the Fire Marshall inspections bust us for the tape boxes on top of the control room if they get too close to the ceiling. And call me Jackson. Or something besides Client or Sir or Mister anything. You’ll meet a girl on the phone this week who says ‘Yo, boss’ when she talks to me, but she might as well say ‘Hey, fuckhead’ because I’m nobody’s boss.” He waited two beats, went right to it. “I know you’re uncomfortable. About this gig or last Wednesday or something. We have to work together, so tell me what will make that go away.”

She fumbled for a second. He was supposed to be a dick and start all that ‘so what smart ideas do you have, shorty’ crapola, but…

“Sir, I served six years as a lead field mechanic in the Army, and I got attitude. Too much of it. The men wouldn’t do what I needed them to do and I was a bitch because I wouldn’t fuck them. I knew in the field that, they, we…we just couldn’t do sex and do our jobs. Some of them got it, but…Just because you drink a beer with someone doesn’t mean you’re in love or heat, or it’s an invitation to visit the vacation they thought they were going to find between my legs. It’s taken me a long time to get past that and an asshole ex and single momming an eight year old. And when I finally wanted to, with you, I drank too much and…”

She reeled out a couple of feet from the tape measure. “Hold this. Down there, in the middle of the X.” She walked off across two thirds of the empty the space, nodded her head as if agreeing with herself, tugged the tape out of his fingers and took a deep breath while she waited for the clatter to stop.

“I haven’t…Sex…In four years. I wanted to, I told you that, sir, and that was embarrassing enough. And then I woke up in your apartment after we didn’t. Embarrassment number two. I don’t go out to intentionally pick up piano players who listen to me and are a lot younger in the daylight, sir. Honest, I don’t. So embarassment number three. And here we are. You spent time on me and we didn’t do anything and just like the Army that’ll somehow be all my fault and you’re going to question everything I do. And I can’t handle all that attitude now that I’m out from under it, okay? I’m damn good at what I do, but when that shit starts up I want to say ‘fuck you all,’ sir, and stick my middle finger in everyone of your noses like you did to that actress, and I really have to watch it or I’ll starve. Eventually some people listen to me but most people run on about shit that doesn’t matter or won’t work and I say fuck it and do what they want because it’s work and I need the money.” She took another deep, needed breath, let it go but kept her tension.

“That’s all good to know, I think, but you haven’t told me how I can help.”

“Sir, what I’m trying to say is you can’t make me do lame work on the cheap or argue with me about everything because we didn’t have sex. Please. This job, I can see it. I have a chance to do it right in here, on budget, and I have to. Or I can’t stick.”

“I can work with that.” He dumped his cold coffee down the rusty sink, tossed the cup in the galvanized can. “About that non-sex thing? We both made it home, I got my car. I was a dick for working a piano bar like I was sixteen. Every now and then I get tired of my skin and do something stupid, so I’m right there in the middle of that embarrassed business with you. You and I are okay. ” He watched her work her face and take that on.

“As far as this room is concerned, Jade? It’s yours. I threw out some ideas, you threw them back. You know a lot more about this than I do. Air and function is what I, what we all need out of this space. No, now….look at me.” He caught both of her nervous hands on the way to her cutoff’s pockets. They seemed tiny, but still hard as granite. “You’ll meet a French woman this week who says ‘The story completed, my love?’ So finish it.”

“My face is burning, sir, I know it is. The last thing is I didn’t bring your coffee cup back. On purpose. That blue is, I don’t know. Strange and beautiful. Like you said, a blue only mescaline knows. I drink my coffee, set it down and stare at it. I started to lie and say I broke it, that’s how much I like it. That’s what needs to go away, being embarrassed about everything with you. Because I have been so wrong since climbing all over you in Bellacardi’s to ditching you without a car, to thinking of ways to steal your coffee cup. And…”

“And?”

“I need you to mean that, sir, about this room being mine and us being okay. Let me do a good job we can both be proud of and I can take pictures and use you and this project for a reference. I’ll be okay with us and the sex we didn’t have and the embarrassments if we can work that way. Maybe I could buy the coffee cup from you, sir, or you could tell me where to get one.”

“First, and get a hold on this, I’m not a sir. I can get you a whole damn box of those mescaline blue cups and the girl who designed them will be gassed that you like them. Straight up, Jade, last verse. Between you and me? You’re really cute almost naked for a little bitty girl with a killer, squirrelly tan. The white hands and feet? My mom would have named you Socks or Boots if you were a stray that turned up. That’s all there is of our short, sorta funny, didn’t make it to sex story. You and I are cool. And hopefully friends.”

“And as long as I’m in budget, this is my project?”

“Yes ma’am, all yours. C’mon, Boots, stop worrying. Do I need to sign something, get you a check?”

“Both would be good. Neither are required on consultation day. Boots? Oh, don’t. That’s not funny…You mean it, ‘straight up’? We didn’t, I’m weird and kept your Mescaline blue coffee cup, and that’s all okay and there’s no ‘who’s the boss’ weirdness?”

“There it is.”

“Contract and a check and I’m okay? My mouth sometimes…I brought a contract in.” She fished a folded sheet out of her tool belt, handed it to him. “And the check would be good, if it’s alright. Not that I don’t trust you yet, but I could really use it. And as a safety, in case you’re jacking me around because of my tan lines and I’m being happy-carpenter-girl-with-a-job blind and don’t want to see it.” She took a couple of deep breaths. “Shooo-eee.” She dropped her shoulders, shook out both of her hands and finally smiled.

He reached into the fridge in the old bathroom, pulled out the last two cold Cokes, handed her one. “Coffee kind of died on us. Caffeine is caffeine. So we have a deal, Boots?”

“Yes sir. Deal!” She frowned, tapped the old, rusty, spray painted, duct taped fridge. “This has to go, sir. This is a new, unisex restroom with real light and a lady grade vanity setup, not a room where men hang out, eat greasy take out, drink beer and pee.”

“Will there be a room for that?”

“No. I did your kitchen open, half size, with an island. On the other side of the restroom wall that goes where I’m standing.”

“Pool table?”

“Front side of the kitchen, plenty of elbow room. Are you any good, sir? At pool?”

“I can tell by the look in your eye that I need to be careful how I answer that.” He signed the contract, wrote her a check for half the budget, set them both by the rusty, dinged up sink in the old eat and pee and shower room.

“Sir? Where are you going?”

“It’s your room. ‘Ma’am’.” He bowed, deep. “I’m getting the hell out of your way.”

She waited for the door to close, hugged herself and spun all the way around on the ball of her right foot. When her work boot landed she looked up at the high east windows. “Ma’am! Yes Ma’am! Contract. Sold. Check. Boom. Boots? Crap-ola. But…” She turned a slow three-sixty with her arms out. “A ‘kick ass small recording studio front end’? Oh my God, baby. You are mine.”

Mescaline Blue

In WC#8 I said “just write it.” You see a character, have an encounter, tune in and let it go. In year 3 of THG III the studio Jackson works out of needs a remodel. That’s the short version. It could have been handled with a paragraph or two of narrative, or the story delivered, as it currently stands in the draft, embedded in 400 words of dialogue that contains other elements. But – I needed a character (I thought), let the tape in my head roll and got a 4k full-blown interaction with two characters. Don’t worry, this is the 1.4k part 1. I won’t use it for the book, but what I said about Writer’s Block. It’s a myth. I met this character when she did my car inspection a few years ago, know nothing about her, but I listened and there she was. I think this is how short story collections are born.

Jackson’s Apartment / Long Bach California, July, 1981

Jackson sat on the edge of the bed in his old apartment’s spare bedroom, gave the well rendered lioness’s head an appreciative eye. It lived in a deep Coppertone-colored jungle, surrounded by a ring of flowers he was pretty sure were coloring book versions of petunias or something, not foliage native to sub-Saharan Africa. The tips of the long grass that weaved through it all and poked out around the top half of the picture created a nice, crown-like effect, but they looked out of place as well. Like Palm Sunday palm frond handouts Catholic junior high school girls could fold into religious origami.

A thin, pale line ran straight across the lioness’s nose and the width of the small, tan, muscular back it lived on. It all reminded him of a pastel chalk art project, as if he had run his little finger across her back and smudged the color off down to the paper. Which is how he decided to wake her up. He dragged the tip of his middle finger lightly from the where the pale line and Coppertone met the new bottom sheet on the new bed in Dash’s old bedroom, across her back and the lioness’s nose to the middle of her rib cage on the opposite side.

She pulled the top sheet straight up her back from her waist, bumped his hand out of its Etch-a-Sketch trance. “Unh-uh, Rafe. Fuck off. Show your latest your morning wood ’cause we are so divorced.” She smacked the pillow with a fist, pulled the other one over her head. “Get the kid ready yourself if you’re so frisky.”

“My name’s not Rafe, I don’t think we were ever married and I’m fresh out of kids.” He’d been awake for a while, was already dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. “Coffee?”

He stood, heard the covers being tossed behind him and some low, exclamatory profanity. He turned and glanced. She did have some squirrel-ly tan lines. White feet, white hands, white butt. Not a bikini white butt, but white from waist high to three or four inches past where everything came together. About a minute later, while he was pouring water in the top of the Mr. Coffee, she blew out of the bedroom in her red paisley bikini panties, clothes clutched to her chest.

“Phone?”

“Right in front of you,” he nodded to the small counter that divided his kitchen from living room. “One in both bedrooms if you need some space.”

She disappeared back into Dash’s old bedroom, he heard her bark at someone on the phone, the toilet between the bedrooms flushed, he never heard the door close or open. Jesus. Two minutes later she was standing at the small divider again, dressed in the red and yellow flowered dress that had gotten them into this situation.

“I hate to be a bitch, but I need to go. Now. We can beat the lock on the 405 or run up through…What?”

“You drove, didn’t trust me. We weren’t that far from here when you passed out at the gas station. I didn’t know where else to take you, didn’t want to troll your purse trying to find out.” He waited for her to wake up, but she was absorbing as fast as he laid it out. “Your pickup’s on the street out front. If you have to book we’re cool. I can get to my car.”

“You don’t mind? Crapola, I’m…I have a time window to beat. I bet you think I do this all the time, huh? Not at all…I told you that, didn’t I? That’s why I’m so scattered. I’m…I shouldn’t be here. Did I drink? Did I explain my tan?”

“A couple of drinks too many and a couple of times explaining a lot of things. Just saw the tan a minute ago. Interesting. Are you a trim carpenter for real?”

“Yeah. My hands.” She rubbed her fingers with her thumbs, screwed up her lips. “Rough. Sorry. I’m not the usual Wednesday piano player’s door prize at Bellacardi’s, am I?”

“I doubt it. Leave me a card, or your number?”

“Right. You’re going to call me. After no car, and no sex and…” Damn, he looked like he might be serious. “Okay.” She pulled an overstuffed red patent wallet out of her purse and sifted through a handful of cards, offered him one.
Jaeyden Hammett Carpentry – Serving the Greater Los Angeles Area. Two state license numbers and a phone number.

“You real busy?” He pulled one of his cards out of the second kitchen drawer he opened, set it on the divider. She picked it up, held it with her teeth and talked around it.

“This week, yeah. I have a remodel finishing up in West L.A. They say the bust is coming. Just my luck, right? Nothing next week yet. What am I saying? Nothing anywhere past Friday. I’m state licensed for trim and frame. Oh, and I’m bonded, too. A hundred grand. I think.”

She pulled one of her hands off shoe duty, took the card out of her mouth and dropped it in her purse. She was trying to talk, hang onto the counter with her elbow, stand on one leg and put on some kind of ankle wrap sandals that tied. The sandal wrap was an attempt to hide where her work boots cut off her tan. Women. He reached out, put a hand on the shoe between them.

“Next week’s job just landed, Jade. Solid. I’ll call.” He nodded at the shoe under his hand. “You might want to blow these off and drive barefoot.”

”Right. You need to get rid of me. Heard and understood. Someone is coming and I need to beat it. I feel so stupid…”

She stopped at the door to organize shoes and keys, fumble in her purse. A kicked around some, hard working, deeply tanned, tiny, no make up thirty-ish female carpenter with a mess of sun bleached hair and more of a mess tan lines under a pretty, probably rarely worn dress.

“No reason for stupid, and nobody’s coming. You had to take off the shoes to drive last night, carried them in when I woke you up.”

“I musta forgot that part.” She fidgeted with her dress, small shrugs, twists. “There was some story, right? One name Jackson? If you do call? Never mind, men don’t ever call me that way.” She dropped her shoes, threw her head back, gathered up a fistful of ponytail and popped a band around it. “They find out I was in the Army and I’m divorced with a kid and what I do for a living and think I’m a lez, so if you do call, I’ll know it’s you.” She picked up her nowhere-to-belong shoes, patted her purse. “And I have your card.”

She poked her head back in just before the door closed. “Thanks, you know…For being…And not getting…” She heard the Mr. Coffee gurgle. “Do you have a styrofoam cup, sir? Or a cup I can borrow?”

He reached up into the cabinet and pulled out a tall, translucent blue Morisé coffee cup, loaded it two thirds full for her.

She tied her shoes together and hung them around her neck while he brought the cup, took it with both hands, held it up to the light. “Amazing glaze. What’s the little gold M for?”

“Mescaline. It’s the only place I know where you can find that color of blue.”

“That’s true, you know, about this blue. But I think you’re bullshitting me about the M. Sir. I’ve seen it somewhere.” She gave him a slightly more relaxed look, between gratitude and mild surprise. “Nice cup. Don’t worry, I’ll get it back to you.” She pulled the door as she backed out, stuck her head around again just before it closed. “Because you are going to call me.”

Fried Hog Poop – No Charge For The Fold

Another “The Hot Girl -part 3” writing exercise casualty. Dialogue vs Narrative for backstory. Investment Alert – Long Read- almost 3k. Coffee or wine may be required.

Las Vegas – Mid-Summer 1979

Jackson loosened his red and gold silk bow tie and tried to clear his head of the endless piano bar requests for “After the Love Has Gone” before he stepped out the back door of the hotel kitchen with a couple of waiters. One male, one female, the three of them on their daily post-lunch-rush burn one and chill in the heat retreat.

The girl, Missy, was close to his age. Everyone called the guy Five-Oh because he dyed his hair, combed two-thirds of it back in a duck’s butt to cover the tanned or spray painted bald spot, left the front hanging greasy like Jack Lord from Hawaii Five-O. He could have been thirty or sixty. His sun spotted hands looked ancient covered in wiry, salt and pepper hair and they shook, wide and slow like a lazy blues vibrato when he passed the flat joints he carried in his wallet. He was weird, too thin and jumpy, probably a speed freak, but he knew somebody who grew killer, lime green hydroponic weed and he was loose with it.

Missy was too thin herself, wouldn’t talk to anyone but her customers. After her shift she changed into the same long, hippie-print tapestry skirt and a slightly dingy white, cap sleeve t-shirt, hit the joint with them and headed out the alley and west on foot. After a week of everything he said to her running into a wall, Jackson followed her. It felt like she was going to walk them to where the west side of Vegas met the desert if he didn’t stop her.

He caught up at an intersection, pulled out the first conversation starter he could find. “Nice bracelet. Indian?”

“I knew you were back there, space man. I missed the ‘walk’ light on purpose and waited up so we could bale this and stack it in the barn. I don’t need a boyfriend or a new savior or a better job or a better way or better sex or Avon or Amway or the New York City Sunday paper or anything you’re selling. Leave me alone.”

“I asked about the bracelet.” It was thin leather covered in beads and more of a cuff, almost like lightweight Indian biker wear, and laced on with orange yarn.

“Indian, yeah. I don’t know what kind. It was wide enough for what I needed, and the bead pattern was cool.” He thought she was going to bite a hole in her lip. “I lace it on and forget it. Thanks for caring. Gotta go.” She took off across the street without the walk light, dodged a couple of cars and kept on west. He watched for a minute, jogged in the heat all the way back to his car and drove west on Flamingo. He crossed under the interstate, saw her a quarter mile ahead. He rolled up in front of her, stopped and got out.

“This is stupid. Missy’s not your name, nobody’s really named Missy and nobody in Vegas nicked you with it.”

“I’m not from Vegas and it’s not your problem, is it?”

“I’m from bale it and put in the barn country myself. You don’t talk through your nose, and Missy is still bullshit.” He could see her frustration with him ramping up.

“Do you get away with this, wherever you’re from, talking to girls like we need to talk back and telling us it’s bullshit if we don’t? I told you —”

“You didn’t tell me anything, it’s hot as hell and you aren’t walking like you’re going anywhere. You can ride in the back with the tire iron like the last girl that got in my car, but get off your feet and outta the heat, tell me where you need to go.” They stared at each other for a few seconds. He drummed on the top of his car with his fingers while she fidgeted with the leather cuff. “Hey, I liked that one. Feet, heat.” She still wasn’t sold, but she let a quick, faint smile get out. He was gaining ground.

“What, now you’re some kind of prairie poet or something? I heard twang. Texas? Not tin can enough to be Okie.”

“Okie born and raised. But I’ve spent a lot of time getting it out of my nose and down into a drawl.”

“You’re not there yet.” She gave up another faint smile, crawled into the back seat. “Wow, baa-ad. The air conditioner in this thing works!”

He pulled away from the curb, had no choice but silence since his radio had been stolen, idled them out Flamingo in third.

“Nice hole you have in your dash.” She opened his back window a crack, lit a long, white filtered cigarette and blew “Kansas” out with the smoke.

“No Kansas without a tape player.”

“Me, you Okie clown. I’m from Kansas. Though where I lived? I could almost throw a rock and hit Oklahoma if I wanted.”

In the mirror he watched her make a face while she leaned, twisted, pulled a seatbelt buckle out from under her backside. “Now I’m living across town the other way in a runaway shelter, so you aren’t taking me ‘home’ anywhere around here, if that was your big ‘help Missy out’ idea.”

“Little old for that shelter, aren’t you? Twenty-two?”

She slapped the side of his headrest. “Good guess! Twenty-three. Twenty-four in August. They don’t check ID there, I don’t do hard drugs, and I wash my face with Noxzema to keep up my girlish looks. There’s girls in there not even fourteen look a lot worse than me. I hate the place, but it’s not coed, so it’s safe. Horny mixed up chicks I can handle. It’s horny, mixed up dudes I can do without.”

He checked her taking his temperature over that in the rear-view. “I’m starving. The no feed us rule at work sucks.”

“So does the food, space man. So really it’s like a benefit, you know? Them not feeding us.” She continued to watch him, his eyes keeping time between the road and her in the mirror. “They weigh that shit is why we don’t get to eat it. Every ticket gets a weight and they check it once a week to see who’s skimming. They even weigh those pans under the counter where they throw the fuckups away. The Mafia runs a way tighter ship than the Navy, that’s for sure.” She let the smoke and her mind drift a little, ashed her cig out the window. “I don’t eat much so it doesn’t matter to me. I walk all afternoon, drink a lot of water. My car’s broken, so I walk back to the shelter after dinner shift. They usually have some kind of chunks in macaroni. It’s slimy, but nice of them. And it keeps me from blowing away. But me and food. It’s just…” She watched the smoke curl, dropped the butt out the window, sighed and stared after it.

“I live on this end of town,” Jackson said to the mirror. “Out where they’re building houses. Not many restaurants yet. Not much of anything yet but apartments, stick framed houses not getting finished. The economy is what I heard. I was going to fix something easy. You can bring the lug wrench in with you.”

“You’re not dangerous, I picked up on that. Okie weird, maybe. I’ll come in ‘cause it’s hot, but I’m just gonna watch.”

***

Jackson made quickie stir fried rice with two Uncle Ben’s boil-in-bags, a bag of frozen veg, a couple of scrambled eggs and pepper. He set two bowls on the counter, grabbed Tabasco and soy sauce from the fridge. He splashed a bowl with some of both, forked the rice, shrugged approval. “I gotta do some laundry this afternoon.” He pointed to the main bedroom with his fork. “There’s all kinds of robes in the front bedroom. Take the tire iron when you’re done with the rice, toss your clothes out. No charge for the fold.”

All she could do was snort with her mouth full because he’d let that go without seeing it as a fantastic jest. “I can’t get stuck out here looking at a dinner shift with no clothes and some crazy Okie weirdo who hates radio. It’s not ever going to happen.” She spooned some more of the rice, shot the bowl of it with a generous dose of soy sauce and took it to the big front bedroom, yelled for him from inside. He ambled in with his bowl, watched her through the open double door on the closet while she slowly fanned through several dozen silk robes on plush hangers. She held a simple, long pink one under her chin, took three steps sideways to the full length mirror and whistled soft and low.

“Wowzer…” She hit the light switch that handled the atmospheric indirects, not the overhead “work” lights. “Will you look at that…How the hell do you live here on the piano bar, space man?” She leaned forward, slowly turning her head to take it all in. “Just being in this bathroom has to be a sin. What’s with all the clothes?” She caught a glimpse of both of them in the wall to wall mirror, blushed. “And the perfume and all these lotions and make up?”

“Office supplies.”

“Yeah?” She hung the robe on a brass hook by the door, gave it a loving pat. “Too much. Too-oo much.” He followed her back to the kitchen where she went straight to the skillet and spooned the remainder of his simple chef Chinese into her bowl.

“I’m only eating because this is the first time any man has ever cooked for me. And I can’t let that one get by, you know? Truly. Never happened before.” She talked around a mouth full of rice and veg, gestured with her bowl. “This could be a bowl of fried hog poop, but knowing a man cooked it for me makes it great, whatever it is.” She swallowed the last of her rice and veg, balled up her paper napkin and dropped it in the bowl. “Seriously. Lay it out, space man. What’s up with the bathroom and the silk robes and everything?”

“This place belongs to seven non-affiliated, free lance hookers. They rented the place right after it was built because it was in the furthest out burbs, no one is looking for hookers out here, and they don’t do business or live in the apartment. They pull up, come inside and prep, walk out dressed up in expensive, real world clothes, climb back in their cars and hit their appointments. Town and Johns are east, desert and construction are west, they live wherever they live. I make sandwiches or omelets, do their laundry, keep the place clean, gas up their cars, glue heels back on shoes, fix stuff. C’mere.”  He set their bowls in the sink, tossed their napkins in a can under it and walked her back into the master bath in the front bedroom.

“See that?” Jackson pointed through the glass surround on a garden tub at a shiny brass shower head the size of a dinner plate. “I put that in for them last week. A hundred and twenty bucks, no shit. From Italy, I think. That paddle thing on the side goes all the way around. From standing in the rain to that little circle of holes in the middle that will beat your ass. It’s —”

She pushed him out of the room and locked the door. Less than a minute later her clothes flew out and the door locked again.

He waited until he heard the bathwater stop before starting the load of hooker office wear and Missy’s clothes. He sat on the couch and watched a video tape of a guy with a foreign accent explain beginner guitar and music theory. He couldn’t keep up with the guy on guitar, yet, but it was good for his brain to stay on top of even simple theory. And the only other tape, the sensual massage lesson, would have primed him to climb, uninvited, into the bathtub with his nameless guest.

***

“Massey, not Missy? Ferguson? Like the tractor?” He leaned his head on the back of the couch in mock shock. “Jesus. Alice Chalmers would at least have been more chick sounding.”

“Hey,” she kicked him on the shin with a bare foot, “there’s nothing wrong with Massey. I just stay away from all of that except for government forms because I have to tell it all, like now. Only nobody else has cooked for me or washed my clothes since mama died. Tell me you didn’t do it ‘cause you’re a panty sniffer. I could use a friend.”

“I only sniff to check for clean or dirty.” He grinned, held up the red can. “More Coke?”

“No. I like to crunch the ice chunks that still have some taste of it. I’ve never, ever seen anybody beat up ice with a hammer before.”

“I don’t like cubes. Don’t know why, just never have. My mom indulged me, so it’s a habit now. When did your mom die?”

“When my dad ran over her with a combine ‘cause she was fucking Nueller down in the air conditioned garage of the Esso. I was twelve then? Yeah, twelve, and just a couple of days before it happened my brother’d pulled a shotgun on dad when he went off on mom, told him not to touch her again, ever. I didn’t blame her when it all came out. Dad’s about a pig and a fucking half. Fat, drunk mostly, showers when he remembers. Nueller was always shiny clean, smelled like Old Spice even on a hot day, always had a crease in his pants and was fucking every woman in three or four counties in two states who had a guy like dad for a husband.”

“Nice work if you can get it.”

She wrinkled her nose like somebody’d farted. “Not really. He’s dead now, too, Nueller is. The man who owned the Ford lot from over in Anthony waited for him to step out from behind the pumps and ran him down. He was going about twenty-five, nailed Nuellie with the dead center of a brand-new Ford. Backed up over him, ran over him some more. The paper said Nueller was smiling. The Ford lot man’s wife looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe, some kind of hot girl everybody said. I didn’t know her. Nueller probably thought it was her coming for him, not her husband. Happy to dead. Boom.” She covered her knees again with the slippery, oversized pink silk robe. She went thoughtful for a moment, set her glass of ice on the coffee table, looked at him and was surprised he was listening.

“I guess that’s the best way to go, you know, looking forward to something. Mama was miserable and said all the time she only stayed for me. I know she had to have heard that combine, had to know what was coming, and didn’t try to run or anything. Miserable to dead. Boom.” She pulled the sleeve of the robe down over her left wrist where the wide, beaded Indian bracelet lived when she wasn’t fresh out of the tub. “I think that’s why I’m still here. Some days I feel too miserable to die. If I get happy someday? Lightning will strike me, I know it.”

Jackson pulled the sleeve back, looked at all the small, white scars on her wrist. Nothing deadly, just knicks. Manifested frustration. She turned, chin in the crook of her arm, watched him unload the clothes from a dryer in a closet by the kitchen.

“The Indian bracelet you like? I only got it because it stops me. I know it’s crazy, but sometimes I’ll even pinch myself with a roach clip if I’m bummed. I’m right handed and if I tried any of that with my left hand I’m so retarded I’d cut my arm off. I really sort of need my right one or I couldn’t do anything and then I’d be more miserable and not dead.”

“Cutting your arm off might be a good start on dead.” He dumped the basket of dryer friendly panties, teddies, slips, nothing but lace and hooks bras, a couple of nylon halter top with hot pants onesies along with Massey’s clothes on the big, square coffee table and started sorting. He was almost done, folded her panties, dropped them on top of her skirt and t-shirt.

“How’d you know?”

He held up a small piece of v-shaped lace draped over his finger and her tired at the seams tiger-striped bikinis, raised his eyebrows. He also held up what had once been a bra and was now a lot of stringy elastic and shapeless nylon and cotton. “Your bra is shot. You oughta toss it.”

“And wear what?”

“Go liberated or get in the top drawer in the big bedroom. Probably forty in there. Two of the ladies are about your size. Find one you like that fits. They’ll never miss it, and if they do I’ll tell them the dryer ate it.”

She came back dressed, with an obviously lacy bra under the t-shirt. “You’re a weird sort of guy, space man. You cook a little, do laundry like a Chinaman. You’ll look at my legs and show me the shower but not to make me feel creeped. Where’d you learn to be a house boy?”

“Lived with a girl who failed home-ec. The rest was mom went to work. Simple survival.”

“Same here on the survival. Only my mama was murdered and he got away with it.”