James R. Muri
My notorious luck held during the war. I came home healthy, marked only by a nice clean bullet hole in the left buttock when it didn't get low enough in North Africa, and a groove in my right cheek from the shell fragment that also took off the right earlobe in northern France. I never understood how I got through it all with those minor scratches.
After mustering out I bashed around aimlessly for the better part of a year, going from one simple job to another. Tiring of that quickly, I then tried college in New Mexico. Geology eventually showed itself to be marginally interesting. But three years of that and a couple of dismal boy-girl situations later, I needed a change. At least, that's what I was told.
The need for change came about when that pretty peach I met at the Water Hole, a tavern in my college town, went home with me. She wouldn't move in, but she returned regularly until she figured out the same things about me that other girls had. Anyway, a few days after she left in an offended huff, I received a summons to the office of the Dean of Admissions. There, on his desk, sat a photo of himself and his wife.
The Dean must have been fifty. His wife, however, passed herself off as a twenty-ish student. She had also passed herself off as my paramour for a few weeks before angrily stalking out of my apartment. I broke into a nervous sweat.
"My wife and me," he greeted, pointing to the photo. "Does her justice, don't you think?"
"She's - striking," I agreed.
He didn't offer me a seat, but sat himself behind his desk. Comfortable, he leaned back in his chair. "She tells me that you've made a number of suggestive advances to her. Do you generally prefer married women, Son?" he asked, his bushy brows snarled together in a challenging scowl.
"Uh - no, sir. I got the impression that she was a student, and I certainly didn't know she was anyone's wife. She didn't wear a ring, and the subject never came up. We hardly talked at all." We hadn't wasted our time together on palaver.
He leaned forward, elbows on the desk and hands together in front of his face as in prayer. For a moment he regarded me over the tips of his fingers. Staring into the face of the man I'd cuckolded made me queasy.
Apparently he made up his mind about something, then leaned back again. "I've looked into your record, Mister Sweet. Your grades are better than average, although not remarkable. Your, uh, other record - your informal record, if you will, which I had to investigate through other means, shows that several young women have apparently fallen to your fit and trim stature or blue eyes or laconic ways, or maybe you just got them drunk. Whatever happened, I'm told that they all eventually came to regret their, uh, relationships with you. I haven't misstated that, have I?"
Hard to argue with a general truth, I thought. "No, Sir."
He slowly nodded his head. "I thought not. Mister Sweet, I think you'd be doing the community at large a favor by transferring your academic record and, uh, other interests to another institution, preferably one far out of state."
My alarms went off. "Are you kicking me out of school, Sir?" I asked, undecided whether to be frightened or angry.
"No, Mister Sweet. I'm suggesting that you might find it easier to get along elsewhere. Next semester's registration is just around the corner, and it's possible that the classes you need might not be available to you, or that your transcripts might be misplaced. That, of course, would mean you wouldn't be able to register, or have any academic record at all. Very difficult to transfer a non-existent record. And very complicating. A different, out-of-state school probably wouldn't have such unfortunate administrative lapses." He kept his eyes on mine, watching for a reaction.
I lapsed into anger, which I controlled enough to remain civil. "That sounds like Get Out Of Town By Sundown Or Else, Sir."
"No, Mister Sweet. Not by sundown. Just don't be in this community next semester. You will rest easier if you take yourself a half-continent or more away from here. In the meantime, have no further contact with my wife. Otherwise you'll find life even more difficult. There are also legal steps that I could take, unless you decide to do yourself and the community a favor, Mister Sweet. Get a set of your transcripts as soon after finals as possible, and leave."
Well, there was nothing magic about New Mexico, and I had plenty of money; the GI bill paid most of my college bills and enough to live on. I still had most of my military pay; it went into savings during the fighting in those foreign places, and unlike some I didn't drink much or gamble at all. Aunt Sarah, my favorite spinster aunt, died after a decades-long fight with cancer while I was freeing the frigging French from themselves and getting the modern equivalent of a dashing sabre scar. She left me a comfortable estate, and I made myself a silent vow to dispose of it in ways that would make Aunt Sarah smile in her grave. Money had never meant much to me; it had always been a tool, something useful for specific purposes, but not something to treasure any more than one would treasure a screwdriver. So what would goody-goody Aunt Sarah want? Easy, I knew. Just use it to make a difference, whatever that meant. She would know what that was, even if I didn't.
Anyway, there I was: young, healthy, solvent, burned out and kicked out. There had to be something more to life than just stumbling through it. When does one get around to living it? I wondered hundreds of times. War sure as hell wasn't living life, I thought. Neither's college. Even those girls said I didn't seem to show much spark about anything. They said I turned snotty too easily. They said I made cruel fun of them for no apparent reason, that I sometimes picked on them to the point of torment. And I know that I did. Probably today there'd be some shrink who'd diagnose me with some war-related brain fart, or something, but really there was no excuse for the way I treated girls. I'd done that all my life. Hell, I needed major surgery, psychically speaking. I actually admitted that to myself. Maybe the dean was right. Maybe it was time for a change, time to replenish my dried-up juices, time to electrify my burned-out circuits, time to wake up from the stumbling half-life I'd been living. After making a few rudimentary checks, Minnesota seemed a likely place to go. It offered few people, a decent college, a half continent's distance from New Mexico, and as good a place as any to start the search for whatever purpose or inspiration I lacked.
* * *
So in late February of 1949 I closed the door to my apartment and put a few belongings into Max's back seat, five one hundred dollar bills and a number of smaller denominations into my wallet, my checkbook into the glove box, and hit the road north for Minnesota. I had plenty of time, since I'd decided on taking the semester off to look around. Hell, from a time perspective it didn't really matter where I went. And maybe, just maybe, I'd be by myself long enough to figure out why I had such trouble with girls. I certainly didn't want to go through life being sent packing by an endless string of wronged females. I liked girls. Really I did. Yet they kept driving me off. Now, there was a puzzle worth solving, if I could, while looking for whatever else I needed to turn me into a real person.
My friend Dexter gave Max one last tune-up for the road, and Max seemed to want the trip as much as I did. Then Max took me north in comfort, occasionally driving within range of a radio station. I spent a lot of time thinking, remembering, but not deciding. I held the wheel while Max devoured the road, until Max took me into western Nebraska.
That's where Max got us lost in the middle of the night.
* * *
I don't really blame Max. Max is just a car that started life as a '35 Nash Aeroform. Over the two years that it had taken to build, my friend Dexter talked me into scrapping the original engine and, in a last minute inspiration, convinced me into putting in a ported, relieved and balanced Cadillac V-8 with a trio of progressively linked two-barrel Holleys, a three quarter cam, and a LaSalle transmission with an electric overdrive churning a dual ratio competition differential. The whole thing rides on high-traction rubber and the latest in suspension systems to make it safe and stable at speed. Pegging the speedometer takes less time than bragging about it. But aside from the potential for speed, I like quiet driving, so we skipped the throaty exhaust system in favor of oversized twin mufflers. Then we jazzed up the paint job with a tan and pink combination that turns heads wherever Max goes. I know those sound like girlie colors, but Max looks real dressy. Max was the magic carpet to nowhere, a car and a trip that owed their roots to restlessness, a nation's desperate struggle, blatant stupidity, and a screw loose somewhere inside my head.
* * *
Enough about Max. Back to being lost in western Nebraska. I could have sworn I was on a paved road - I must have been because I took a bridge over the Platte - but eventually the rain and the night and the lack of road signs started to worry me. Where the hell had the pavement gone? Max slid and skittered uncomfortably in the slimy clay, and worse, the engine had started skipping a beat now and then.
We clawed our way through the night, Max and I, slithering along an increasingly less discernible road, with Max's heart skipping more and more beats, until at long last, in the middle of nowhere, Max wheezed and turned toes up.
Nine o'clock. Night black as a pimp's heart. Rain falling like day three of the flood. Max dead, or at least comatose. Last town, if that is what it was, thirty or more minutes behind me.
I sat there in the front seat, steering wheel in both hands, and after the anger and frustration passed, I smiled. Well Milo, I thought, you wanted something different? This is different.
I opened the door and stepped out into the mud. I had no raincoat, but I took off walking in the same direction Max and I had been driving anyway. There'd be a farmhouse eventually, I knew, and I'd been cold before. Big deal.
Less than an hour later a dim light off to the left of the rutted, slimy track hinted at civilization. I walked up to the house, which looked less a house than an oversized chicken coop. Light came out of two curtainless windows beside the door facing the road, and another curtainless window on the side of the house. The house had no porch.
I stood in the mud, a stoical traveler who the cold rain could make no wetter, and knocked on the door. It opened. A woman in a crushed nightcap looked out. One hand clutched a thick, quilt-like robe at her neck, the other hand held a shotgun. It wasn't pointed at me, but it plainly was there. I couldn't see her features clearly, but I did see a crude casket sitting on a table in the center of the room. Its lid was closed, probably already nailed shut. A half-dozen candles flickered in various areas about the room, splashing meager yellow tints into the shadows. Pots, cups, dishpans, and a thunder mug littered the floor and other flat surfaces in the house. The sound of rain dripping into them reminded me of a roomful of clocks. I noticed all this in a second or so.
"You're a long way from the tracks, hobo," she said. Her voice had a catch in it, and I looked at her face a little closer. Despite a gaunt look to the angles of her face, puffy eyelids showed she'd been crying. I revised downward my first impression of her age.
"I'm not a hobo, Ma'am. My car broke down about two miles back that way -" I pointed - "and I wonder if you'd mind me using your telephone to call for a mechanic or a taxi or something."
She looked me up and down, squinting as though seeing me for the first time. "You a college boy, boy?"
I thought that a particularly unpleasant thing to call me, but it did fit, even if I was twenty-five. "I suppose so. I was most recently enrolled in the University of New Mexico." I guessed that my clothing gave me away.
Her mouth twisted into a sympathetic smile. Pretty lips, I remember thinking. "Well, College Boy. Did you see any telephone poles on your walk tonight?"
I hadn't, now that she brought it up. "No Ma'am. Don't you have a telephone?"
"No telephone, no electricity, no running water, no food, no money, nothing worth stealing, no work for a hobo to do. No husband except for that - - that worthless skunk over there." She pointed toward the casket. "He'll go in the ground tomorrow. Tonight's the vigil. See the crowd?"
There was only her.
This woman had difficulties to overcome, I saw. Best, I decided, to leave her in her grief or whatever emotion governed her.
"Well, in that case, I'll be on my way, Ma'am. I'm sorry to have bothered you. Good night."
I started to step away from the door. "Just a moment," I heard from behind me. "Do you have a blanket? Some way to keep warm tonight?"
I shook my head. She disappeared for a moment, then opened the screen and handed out a blanket. "Bring it back when you get your car running," she said. "I'm sorry I couldn't be more help."
I walked back to the car in the rain, in the mud, in the dark. Less than an hour later Max welcomed me into his dry interior, where I wrapped myself up in the soggy blanket and tried to sleep. As I shivered I thought it ironic that I was in a dry space, small as it was, while that woman had to dodge raindrops just to move around in her house.
I wondered if she had a dry bed, or even a dry blanket.
* * *
The rain stopped long before first light, a fact I can accurately report because I did not sleep. The first early morning of March came with a chill that, not having a working engine, Max could do nothing about. My teeth chattered, and when the rain stopped I happily took the opportunity to step outside and walk around in the mud, easing my cramps and warming up from my exertions.
The light from the east trickled into that corner of Nebraska, and soon I could see well enough to open the hood and look at Max's heart.
Three vehicles passed, heading in the direction of that woman's house. A police cruiser, a black sedan and a black hearse ignored my plight there by the side of the road. I guessed that were on their way to pick up the casket and take it to a cemetery. I went back to work.
About a half hour later the three vehicles passed by again, this time heading back the way they'd come, presumably toward the cemetery. About then I found two loose wires on the coil, sitting right there in front of my nose. The nut had worked loose on the connection post. I tightened the nut and gave it an extra snug twist to ensure it didn't work loose again, put myself behind Max's wheel, and engaged the ignition.
Instant startup. Max purred his approval of my genius. I smiled. Back to my adventure, whatever it would turn out to be. Return the blanket back to that poor lady's house, then hit the road to whatever destiny awaited.
* * *
Max idled patiently in the road, warming his coolant as I carried the blanket up to the front door of the house about five minutes later. I opened the screen and pushed the door open far enough to place the soggy blanket on the floor there. I'd wrapped a ten dollar bill inside by way of thanks.
Sitting in the deep shadows, on what must have once been a sofa or divan, the lady still wore that same quilt-like robe and crushed nightcap. Our eyes made contact, then she looked away.
"Thank you for the blanket last night, Ma'am. I truly appreciate it."
"You're welcome, College Boy," she mumbled back.
I hesitated, then went ahead and explained. "I thought you went to the cemetery with those three vehicles I saw earlier. I would have knocked if I'd thought you were home. Please forgive me for just opening your door like I did."
"I know," she said. "You don't need to explain."
"Are you waiting for a friend to take you to the cemetery so you can bury your husband?"
"No," she said. "I could have gone with the folks who picked up my husband, but I wouldn't have been able to get back here afterward."
"No one would bring you back?" I asked, astounded.
She shot a look at me, doing some sort of quick appraisal, then looked away again. "Look how we - - I live. I'm trash," she explained. "No one wants any dealings with trash."
So, appalled at the mentality of folks who would be so petty, I made the offer. "Well, it seems to me that a woman should be able to attend her husband's burial. If it isn't being too presumptuous, please let me provide you a round trip ride so that you can do that. It's the least I can do for your loaning me a blanket last night."
Again she regarded me. In the dim light of the house interior she looked younger. After a moment of thinking she stood. "That's white of you, College Boy. If you'll be so good as to wait in your car, I'll change and be right out."
She changed quickly, coming out the door in a dark dress, old brown leather shoes that hadn't seen polish since they'd been made a century or so earlier, and a wide-brimmed hat with a black veil which covered her face. The shapeless, baggy dress had clearly been made for a more robust woman. Tall, she might have been five nine or ten. Soft coppery wisps that escaped her hat curled on the back of her neck and whispered of youth.
I opened the passenger door and took her hand to help her into the car. I'd never felt a woman's hand as callous-palmed as hers; she had clearly worked hard at the most manual of labor, probably a good part of her life but certainly recently. The slender but strong fingers and narrow wrist revealed that she didn't carry any surplus weight at all.
As Max turned around in the slimy road I tried to get a better look at the bereaved woman. The veil hid her face behind a black mesh, allowing only vague outlines to show. I felt awkward in the quiet presence of this new widow.
So I didn't talk. I concentrated on keeping Max on the road, not as easy a task as it would have been on dry concrete. I felt the woman's eyes on me.
"What happened to your cheek and ear, College Boy?" she asked, no disdain in her voice.
"War wound," I answered. "Got hit in France."
"Oh. Of course. I should have guessed. It must have hurt awfully."
"Actually, I didn't even realize I'd been hit until my buddy told me to stop bleeding all over him. Listen, I should have introduced myself earlier. I'm Milo. You don't have to call me 'College Boy' anymore, unless you want to."
"Milo?" she repeated, a lift of surprise in her voice. "What an odd name!"
I grinned with half my face. "Yeah. I'm the only one I've ever actually met."
"I knew another Milo some years ago," she replied conversationally. "Down in Grand Prairie. God, I hated him!"
I startled. Grand Prairie had been home for a couple years. I turned to look at her again. I still couldn't see her features. "Grand Prairie? Texas?"
"Yes. Do you know the place?"
"I've passed through it. Why did you hate him?"
"He and his flock of foul friends always chased me away whenever I wanted to play with them. They were all fifteen, sixteen years old. I was ten or eleven. I hated all of them, but he was the worst. He made up a rhyme about me that girls still use for skipping rope down there. I'll never forget it:
What a bora!
Run home, cry
And slam the dora."
I almost drove Max off the road, but recovered quickly.
"Are you all right?" she asked, alarmed at my lack of driving skill.
"Road's still pretty slick," I explained. Shit! The woman sitting beside me was none other than Pandora Spock, about whose name even worse poems and jokes than mine had been invented. I guessed that she hadn't heard those. We'd been almost neighbors in a small community between Dallas and Fort Worth some ten years earlier. She was one of my earliest tormentees. Obviously, I'd done a thorough job of it, since she still remembered my poetry.
That made her about twenty-one. Not someone to call me 'College Boy.'
Well, I figured, this is certainly a ticklish situation. Get this burying business taken care of and get the hell out of here before she figures out who I am. I wondered if she kept her shotgun loaded.
I tried to glance at her again as I drove, but my duties to safety made that difficult. So I thought more about Pandora, or just Dora, as most called her: the last time I'd seen her she was about eleven, I guessed, less than five feet tall, on the fat side of pudgy, hair cut short and coiled tighter than an overwound mainspring, buck toothed and tortoise-shell bespeckled. And she dressed funny.
This woman didn't wear glasses. She stood less than four inches shorter than I. No fat worthy of the name. She dressed funny, but judging from the rest of her worldly possessions she didn't have any real wardrobe choices.
"What happened to that Milo?" I asked warily.
"He left to finish high school somewhere else," she said. "One of the western states, I think. I cried for weeks, I was so happy to be rid of him. Some woman has probably killed him by now. I tell myself that from time to time to help me resist the urge to hunt him down myself."
"He must have been a real shit," I commiserated.
She shook her head slowly. "You don't know the half," she told me. "And then I go and marry Arlin."
I let that ride for a moment, then decided that since she brought it up, she probably wanted to talk about it. "Why did you marry him?"
Some people will tell a stranger anything. "He knocked me up. I was in college, my sophomore year. Less than two years ago. I hated everyone. So did he. He rode a motorcycle, did whatever he pleased, laughed at the law, smoked, drank, screwed anyone who would spread her legs. Girls thought he was wild and sexy. I did too."
I'd met a few guys like that. "He sounds familiar," I said. "So do those girls." As soon as I said that I knew I'd said it wrong.
For a moment she stayed quiet, then continued. "I was one of those girls."
"I didn't mean -" I began to apologize.
She shut me up. "Don't worry, I don't take offense. I disgust myself; no reason I shouldn't disgust everyone else too."
"Really -" I tried again.
She fluttered a hand at me, a gesture to shut me up. "He and I were alike in some ways. We'd sit around and tell each other how much we hated everyone, we'd compare stories about past wrongs, we'd plot ways of getting even. Decent people - people with a different perspective on life than Arlin and I had - shunned us, which of course just pushed Arlin and me closer together."
"So you got married?"
She shook her head slightly. "Yes. He got me drunk one day, and next thing you know I miss. I miss again. Mommy says marry him. Daddy insists. So Mister Shit-for-Brains figures Why Not, I'll have some at home where it's convenient, and I'll have everything else wherever else I am, just like I do now. So he agrees. We marry. Two months later his momma and daddy die under mysterious circumstances right back there on that farm where you found me, and Mister Shit-for-Brains inherits it. That meant we had to move onto the farm."
I offered a silver lining, hoping it might cheer some of that defeat out of her voice. "Well, at least you have something. The farm is yours now, isn't it?"
"In a way, I suppose. But actually Arlin inherited its debt. His parents were in deep financial trouble with the bank, and for the last year we've been one payment away from repossession. He used to repair other people's cars and farm equipment for spending money, which meant whiskey and cigarettes and visits to Marilyn's Gentleman's Club and other farmer's wives and daughters and sisters and probably even livestock, and farm payments. Nothing else mattered. Not food, not clothes, not furniture, not a roof, nothing. Especially not food. He got most of his meals away, courtesy of his female friends, I suppose. Brought home only enough to give him something to eat if he got desperate. He didn't care that I was carrying his child. So it - it starved to death inside me. I miscarried, right there on the floor of that house."
"Jesus, what a dismal story! How'd your husband die?" The repulsive picture she'd just painted sickened me. I wondered how anyone could carry around the thought that they'd starved their own unborn child.
She looked ahead. "Same way most motorcyclists die. Something broke, and he went over the handlebars onto his head."
I grimaced. "Ouch! That must have been a terrible shock to you."
She didn't answer right away. Then she spoke, her voice soft. "When I first heard the news, half of me felt relief, and half of me felt guilty for that. I suppose that I loved him early on. He was sexy, all right. He knew how to put a smile on my face whenever he found the time to be in his own bed at night, and for awhile I thought that as good as those times were, everything else had to get better automatically. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep him home. So the shine finally wore off of that idea, and life began to look like a prison sentence. And now I'm rid of him, although it shouldn't have come about this way. I'm sorry that I won't miss him. Everyone ought to have someone to miss them."
"That's a sad story," I observed carefully. "Really sad. What are you going to do now?"
"I'll live on the farm until my canned food runs out. Then I'll have to move somewhere. God knows how I'll do that. I don't have a dollar bill to my name and no way to get any between now and then."
"How big is your place?"
"Big? About ten square feet," she said, snorting.
"No, I mean the farm."
"Oh. Twelve sections."
So, I thought. Twelve square miles. "If it isn't being too nosy, how much are the payments?"
"A hundred fourteen dollars a month," she said right back, apparently not offended a bit. "We're behind two months. The banker says he'll take the place if I don't find a way to make the next payment."
"What do you grow on the farm?"
She sighed. "Not a damned thing. Farming takes equipment and livestock. The bank took those already. And it takes a man. I never had one of those."
I glanced over at her. "Didn't his parents grow crops there?"
She shifted in her seat. "Yes, until the bank took their equipment. You'll laugh at the crop. I did."
"Really?" I felt her eyes on my face and turned to look at her.
She looked away quickly and took a deep breath. "They grew a variety of grain sorghum that most farmers call 'milo'."
My laugh stayed obediently bottled up. "It must have thrilled you to learn that."
"I thought of it as one more needle in the voodoo doll of my life," she explained. "I think I actually expected it." She pointed. "Turn left at the next corner. Watch out for the big mud puddle."
After turning that corner I noticed a huge steel mosquito plunging its beak into the earth. I pointed. "Oil well," I told her, showing off my geological canniness.
"Yes. They seem to be the coming thing."
"Is that one on your farm?"
She shook her head. "No. In fact, we're probably the only farm in these parts that doesn't have at least a couple." She pointed behind us. "The southeast corner of the farm was at that fence line we passed about a half minute ago."
Aunt Sarah whispered something to me. You've got a lot to answer for, she said. Get busy.
"If you don't mind another nosy question, how many mortgage payments are left on the farm?"
"Arlin told me once that his parents had less than three years to go," she answered. I glanced over at her. She sat straight, her eyes on the road ahead. I shut up, suspicion growing in my naturally suspicious mind, and drove quietly until a few worn buildings showed up ahead of us on the eastern horizon.
She pointed. "That's Patience. It isn't much as towns go, but it's all there is in these parts."
She was right. It wasn't much. A half-dozen faded clapboard buildings lined the southern side of the only street in town, a small park took up space for about half the distance on the north side. A church and a funeral parlor were the only buildings at the far end of the park.
She directed me to the funeral parlor, which sat directly across the street from a bank and a three-story hotel. A two-pump Mobil station held down the last piece of civilized development at the edge of town, next to the bank. I pulled Max onto the graveled parking area and walked around and opened Dora's door. She stood and brushed off her dress, then looked at me from about three feet.
I wished I could see her eyes. Her eyes, out of place in her ugly girl face, had fascinated me all those years ago.
"The service will probably last about a half hour," she said quietly. "Then we'll bury him in the cemetery behind the funeral parlor. That might take another half hour. Then there'll be the usual socializing for maybe another half hour. Or more likely less, since we weren't exactly in the upper social circles in these parts. I should be ready to go home no later than an hour and a half from now. Are you sure you want to wait for me?"
I nodded. "You go ahead. I'll wait by the car or in the park, Mrs. uh, -"
She hesitated, then stuck out her hand again. I took it, impressed again by its extensive callouses. "I'm sorry. It's Jones," she said. "Mrs. Arlin Jones."
"I'll wait for you, Mrs. Jones."
"You've got dried mud up to your waist," she pointed out. "You'll have plenty of time to change clothing, if you'd like." She turned and walked into the funeral parlor. Despite her drab and ill-fitting garb and the nearly imperceptible weary droop of her shoulders, I thought she looked almost regal.
Taking my shaving kit, checkbook and a change of clothing out of Max, I went to the Mobil station's restroom to clean up and scrape my face of its stubble. Then, feeling almost civilized again, I walked into the bank to follow Aunt Sarah's whispered instructions.
I told the teller I wanted to bring the Jones mortgage current. She asked which Jones, and I told her the Arlin Jones mortgage. Her eyebrows went up slightly, and she beckoned to a gentleman in a dark suit and blue tie seated at a desk across the room. He rose and walked over.
"I'll take care of this customer, Agnes." He stuck out his hand. "Vernon Jensen, bank President and Loan Officer. How can I help you, sir?" he asked all in capitals, his smile friendly and his hand still out for the shaking.
"I'd like to bring the Arlin Jones mortgage current," I told him, shaking hands. "How much will that take?"
His warm demeanor cooled and our hands separated. Blue eyes turned frosty and did a quick up and down. I did a less obvious one of my own: early forties, my height at about six one, fit, close-cropped hair, used to having things go his way. A big wheel locally, at least in his own estimation. "What interest do you have in that mortgage?" he asked.
"I'm the guy with the money," I told him. "How much?"
Another few heartbeats while he thought about my answer. "Does Mrs. Jones know you're paying her current?"
"Is there a law against someone paying on someone else's mortgage?" I inquired politely, ignoring his question.
His eyes shifted to Agnes and then back to me. "No, Mister, uh, -"
"Sweet," I told him. "Milo Sweet."
"Well, Mister Sweet, we don't get many people dropping in to pay someone else's mortgages, as I'm sure you'd guess."
"Is there a law or a banking regulation against it?" I pressed, whittling down the conversation to its essence. Mister Jensen had gotten under my skin.
"No." Still he looked at me.
"Well then? How long do I have to stand here to get it done? How much?"
"Three hundred and sixty-three dollars, Mister Jensen, including penalties," I heard from Agnes behind me.
I pulled out my wallet. I handed him four hundreds. "I'd like a receipt," I told him. "Make it out as payment on her mortgage, and being received from Mrs. Arlin Jones."
He took the bills, hesitated, then walked back to his desk. Quickly he made me out a receipt and handed it to me, along with thirty-seven dollars.
The otherwise airy room stank of duplicity and shady dealings. "As long as I'm here, why don't I pay off her mortgage?" I asked, suddenly wanting to defang the bank. "All of it."
That struck deep. He flushed and his eyes slipped away from mine, then back. "Again I ask, what interest do you have in that mortgage?"
"I already answered that question. Next time I hear any questions like it I'm going to relate these events to the State Banking Commission. How much?"
Eight minutes later I walked out of the bank with two receipts in my hand: one for the cash payment to bring the mortgage current, another for my check of four thousand and forty three dollars to pay the mortgage completely off.
Vern and I weren't destined to be buddies. I didn't care. I'd probably seen the last of him anyway; Patience would soon be in my rear-view mirror. And Dora could get a new start on that farm, or she could sell it, or do anything else she wanted, without having to deal with Vern and his henchmen. She could even re-mortgage it at a different, more trustworthy bank to get some cash.
I left the bank, feeling better than I'd felt in a long time. I rolled Max over to the gasoline station and filled his tank, cleaned his windows, wiped the dried mud off his hand-tooled leather seats, brushed out the floor, and in general did what I could to make him suitable for people of good taste to enjoy.
Vern stood on the bank steps, his arms crossed, watching me pamper Max.
I took the map I'd used to navigate to this neck of Nebraska off the seat and opened it. No Patience, I finally decided in frustration after scrutinizing every inch of the Nebraska portion. Where in hell was I?
The gas station's attendant knew. "Right here," he pointed on the map to an empty space. I looked. Still no Patience, but apparently all I had to do to get to Minnesota was drive back south toward the South Platte until I hit the Lincoln Highway, then drive east along its northern bank until we crossed the North Platte at, oddly enough, North Platte, then the Missouri at Omaha, then turn north.
Seemed easy enough.
I drove Max back to his first parking space next to the funeral parlor. Time dragged, I noticed. It dragged again. To hell with it, I thought. I'm dressed well enough to go to the burial.
The meeting room of the funeral parlor held the post-burial social event. Only Dora attended. Embarrassed to have discovered that, I started out of the room in the hopes she hadn't seen me.
No such luck. "Come in, Milo."
White painted cement vases held imitation flowers in various places in the room. Walls were white. Gold-painted cement and plaster angels adorned the walls, some of them blowing trumpets, others just looking angelic. Several other upholstered benches offered comfort to people who wouldn't be there. Two circular tables waited patiently to hold refreshments that wouldn't be coming. I went in. I sat next to her.
"Another five minutes or so," she said, her voice empty of feeling. "That'll be long enough."
So we sat. "Nice clothes," she finally said.
"Thanks. Sorry I don't have a suit with me."
"That's okay. Thank you for dressing nice and coming."
I looked at her frankly. Her clothing wouldn't have made the discount shelves at the Salvation Army store. Her lean hands were hardened and strong, her nails blunt and cracked. Her shoulders slumped slightly, probably from impending defeat, I guessed. She saw the future, and she wasn't going to be in it.
"Listen, do you really want to stay here until your food runs out?" I asked.
"No. But that's what's ahead. The bank will foreclose soon, then I'll hitch a ride to the tracks, and probably become a hobo myself." She glanced at me, then quickly apologized. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you were a hobo."
"Where would you go?" I asked, not offended.
She shrugged. "Anyplace. There's got to be a place for people like me. Someplace other than Marilyn's whorehouse."
"You're college educated," I pointed out. "You're smart. You could work almost anywhere."
She gestured about her. "Not here. So I have to go in a couple weeks or so. I'm sure I'll find something wherever I wind up."
I handed her the two receipts. "You don't have to go," I said, hoping that what I'd done wouldn't offend her.
She looked at them. After a moment she looked up. "What are these?"
"Receipts to show that you own that farm free and clear, or will as soon as the check clears. It's yours now, no bank, no strings."
She looked back at them for a moment. She stood. "I'm ready to go home," she said, voice oddly flat.
* * *
Max had barely cleared the town limits when she asked the obvious question: "Why?"
"Because I can," I answered, having already framed that answer in order to avoid telling her the real one.
"That's a lot of money, Mister, uh -"
"Green," I lied. The name would do until I got out of town, and then it would be too late for her to do anything about me. "Sorry. I should have told you earlier."
"What if I don't want to stay here, Mr. Green?"
I shrugged. "Then don't. Sell it. Keep it, or move wherever you want. Go back to college, if you like. Your choice."
"How will I pay you back?"
I glanced over at her. She'd kept her veil down. "I'll leave you my address. Pay me back when you reasonably can. Or not. I'm not going to come looking for you if you don't."
"So this is a gift?" I didn't like the way pride corrupted her voice.
"It's an indefinite loan," I said. "One new friend to another. You did me a favor, I did you one. No strings." I turned the corner. Five or so minutes, I thought, and I can drop her off and be on my way, safe and far away from that shotgun.
She sat quietly for a moment. "Where are you going, Milo? Where were you headed when your car broke down?"
"No place in particular just yet," I answered. "Just traveling. Thought I might eventually go to Minnesota."
"Why there? Girlfriend? More college? A job? A vacation? A wife?"
"More college, next semester. But I don't know anyone there. It's just a place to go, good as any other. And none of the other reasons you suggest apply." I quirked a quick grin out of the right side of my mouth, so she could see that I took no offense.
"Are you running from the law?"
I glanced over and this time her eyes were on me. "I'm not running from anything except an irritated husband and stagnation," I told her. "I need a change. I need to change. This trip is a start."
"Husband?" she asked, her voice indicating scant interest.
"Long story. Basically, I'm supposed to put a half-continent between New Mexico and myself. The lady's husband insists."
Her house loomed ahead, a dirt-colored pile of boards that no one could reasonably call a home. "So it doesn't matter where you go, then? You don't really have a preference, as long as it's a half-continent or so from New Mexico?"
I shook my head.
"Then will you take me home, Milo?"
I turned to look at her, alarmed at that unwelcome question. "There it is," I said, pointing and pretending not to understand.
"Not there. That was never a home. Home to my parents in Grand Prairie," she explained. "I haven't talked with them in over two years. I want to see them. I want to - to sleep in my old bed again. I want - I want to make up for how badly I've treated them. I want breakfast and clean laundry and my mother scolding me to eat better. That would be nice for awhile, before I figure out what to do with the rest of my life. So will you take me home, Milo?"
I struggled to quickly find a way out of that unpleasant jam. "Wouldn't you rather take a train or a bus, Mrs. Jones? I'll take no offense if you'd rather travel more comfortably than in this old heap. And I'm not the good company sort. I've been chased out of town, and for that matter I can barely stand my own company, if you want to know the truth."
"You sound like me," she said. "But I don't believe you're as bad company as you say. You've changed my life in just a few minutes. And for no reason at all, other than the fact that you could, so you did. I think I'd like to travel with you."
Max obediently slowed to a stop in front of her house. Dora opened her door and stepped out, then closed the door. She walked around the car as I sat, both hands on the wheel, and tried to decide what to say or do. Traveling with her hadn't been on my list of ways to make sure I grow old.
She stood by my window. I rolled it down and looked up at her. "I'll understand if you decide to leave me here," she said. "It's what I'd do in your place." Then she turned and walked into the house.
What the hell, I thought. Grand Prairie is less than a thousand miles away. Two, three days. Drop her off in front of her house and drive off before her parents get a chance to recognize me. Maybe she'd help drive and get us there a day earlier.
* * *
She came from her house almost immediately, carrying a small paper package, then went to a low mound about fifty feet to the south. A miniature white cross marked the location. She knelt for a moment, apparently talking, then sprinkled the contents of the package onto the mound. She put her hands on the mound and rubbed whatever she'd sprinkled into the mud there.
She rose, and after a quick glance my way she went back into the house. About fifteen minutes later she emerged.
She wore a pair of old Levis and a red and black checkered flannel shirt tucked in at her tightly belted waist. The combination bagged loosely, overly spacious enough to contain what had to be a painfully slender but still obviously femine figure. A pair of muddy boots covered her feet. She carried a great canvas handbag, a brown paper and twine-wrapped package, and the shotgun, an old Winchester model 1897 that had lost most of its blueing. A rolled blanket rode on her shoulder.
I worried about the shotgun. She opened the door and put her cargo into the back seat, then swung herself in and closed her door.
"That thing loaded?" I asked, thumbing at the shotgun resting on the rear seat cushion.
"Of course. The safety's on, so don't worry. Thanks for the ten dollars."
"You're very welcome." And then I looked at her.
She looked very little like that fat little twerp who'd pestered us all those years earlier, and been heckled into a froth in disproportionate return. Oh she had the same red hair, but she'd tied it back in a pony tail instead of coiling it in tight little spit curls all over her head. Although it needed a wash it looked fresh brushed, and a small green bow set itself off in contrast against the deep coppery background above her left ear.
Her facial skin looked translucent, pale compared to her hands, and the freckle pattern I remembered didn't seem to have grown any, so I guessed that she wore a hat when out of doors. The skin stretched tightly over her cheekbones and brow, showing no evidence of underlying, edge-smoothing fat. Clearly, she teetered at the brittle edge of malnutrition. Her eyes held the same fascination for me that they'd held back in my stupid youth; the left one blue, the right one green. Lovely eyes in an ugly fat girl's face; I'd marveled at the incongruity ten years earlier. But she wasn't an ugly fat girl anymore. Despite her gaunt look, she caused a catch in my breathing. Fifteen pounds, I immediately thought. Give her fifteen pounds. Or maybe twenty-five. God, what a beauty she'd be! I wouldn't have recognized her.
"Going to lock the front door?" I asked, struggling to divert my thinking.
"I'm never coming back here," she answered. "I won't be needing that house or anything that's in it."
"Do you have a suitcase or bag of clothing I can bring out for you?"
"No. Nothing else. My clothes are all rags - you saw the best I had at the funeral. These Levis and this shirt are my husband's."
"I planted Marigolds on my daughter's grave," she went on, ignoring my embarrassed grunt. "They'll re-seed themselves every year. I was planning to plant the seeds on March first, and here it is, March first. Did a lot of planting today, considering."
"Did you name her?" I asked, unsure whether such a question was even proper.
"Sophie," she replied before she turned her face away. I felt like an oafish clod.
We drove back through Patience on our way to the Lincoln highway. Vern and an impressive man in a police uniform stood on the wooden sidewalk in front of the bank and watched us drive down Main street. Dora rolled down her window, leaned out, and offered them an impolite one-fingered gesture. Make that two-fingered; she used both hands.
"Friends of yours?" I asked.
She shifted to more directly face me. "The nice dressed weasel is Vern Jensen, the loan officer at First Bank of Patience. You probably met him earlier. The sheriff is his brother Lance. He wanted twice weekly installments of my private personal attention in exchange for mortgage payments."
Shock and disgust twisted my guts. "That's about as low a story as I've ever heard," I said, feeling the hot flush of anger. I kept my eyes on the road, not wanting her to see how deeply her story had reached.
She looked at me oddly. "Arlin thought it was a good idea."
"I'm beginning to think Arlin and I might not have gotten along real well," I ventured, hoping she couldn't hear the anger in my voice.
She continued. "Arlin said it sounded like free money to him. We had real loud fights about it."
I clamped my teeth. Shut up, shut up, shut up, I scolded myself silently. Don't ask the obvious. Get away from this subject.
She answered the unaskable question. "I didn't do it."
My anger eased. I kept my mouth shut.
"Where are we going?" she finally asked, breaking the lingering silence.
"I thought we'd head east for awhile," I told her, relieved.
"That sounds fine," she said agreeably. "Long as it leads home." She reached behind her and brought the blanket up. She covered herself and leaned her head against the door jamb.
"Would you mind if I sleep?" she asked. "I know it's impolite, but it's been a couple days since I got any."
I shook my head. "Please go ahead and make yourself comfortable, Mrs. Jones. I'll wake you for lunch."
She didn't reply; instead, she sighed and then became quiet. Less than an hour later Max found the Lincoln highway and carried us east.
* * *
We stopped for lunch in Ogallala, just north of the Platte river. Dora matched my own impolite appetite, polishing off a full steak meal complete with fried potatoes, green salad, and a mound of hot buttered kernel corn. Two glasses of beer helped it slide down easily, and she followed it all with a slice of apple pie.
I kept up with her, but my stomach had to stretch a bit to do it. I paid the bill and we walked out.
She thanked me sheepishly. "Thank you for that. I was hungry. I'm so full now I can hardly waddle."
"Me too," I assured her, waddling with her to the park across the street. A fine snowfall flurried about, dusting everything with a thin wash of pale.
"We need to talk about money," she said as we strolled. Apparently the cool weather didn't bother her any more than it bothered me.
"Sure," I agreed.
She stopped and turned to face me. I did the same with her. I tried not to look into her eyes, hoping to hide my impatience to get her home. "You have a nice car. Nice clothes. You're neat and well groomed and - and clean cut. Are you rich?"
I shook my head. "Not exactly, but I don't have to worry about a budget, if that's what you want to know. You're no imposition at all."
"You've done something for me that I can't be sure of ever repaying."
"I hope you won't consider it anything but a gesture from one - - one traveler to another," I told her. God, let's get on the road! We can put another two, three hundred miles in today easy!
"Well, my mother is going to insist on feeding you a home-cooked meal, but I'd still like to carry at least some of my own weight. So I'll sell you my house, if that's all right."
"How much?" I asked. We resumed walking.
"Farm houses go for about five dollars a foot, I think. But mine is in pretty bad shape, so maybe three dollars a foot?" She looked up at me from the corners of her eyes.
"How big is it?" I pretended to want to know.
"It's about fifteen feet by twelve feet. A hundred and eighty square feet. That would come to - oh, five hundred and forty dollars."
"Well - -" I thought a bit. She obviously didn't want a gift. "Well, how about I pay that three dollars a foot, but you have to clean the place out for me?"
She shook her head. "I'm never going back there, remember?"
"Hmmm. Okay, then how about two seventy-five a foot, and I'll do everything?"
She thought a moment. "Okay." She stopped and offered her hand. I shook it, that hand with broken nails and callouses. "Four hundred and ninety-five dollars," she totaled for me.
Quick with math, too, I thought. "Pretty fast figuring, even for a college girl," I kidded.
"I'm not a girl, and I didn't learn that in college," she informed me. "That bastard Milo taught me math tricks when I was eleven."
"I guess he wasn't all bad then," I suggested hopefully, remembering helping with her homework while we sat on her front step once a week or so.
She tossed her head in disdain. "Hah!" she snorted. "Sugar on a cow pie doesn't make it taste any better."
Trying not to actually wince, I changed the subject. "I'll need to get the money, Mrs. Jones. It's early yet, so the bank's open." I pulled out my wallet. "Here's a hundred," I told her, handing her my last one hundred dollar bill. "I'll have the rest for you as soon as the bank can cash a check. Why don't you go shopping? I'll probably be awhile. Take as long as you like. I'll snooze in Max if I get done first."
She stared at the bill, then up at me. A struggle showed in her eyes. I slid my eyes away. "Thank you," she said, then quickly turned and walked through the flurries of tiny flakes toward the Main Street business district two blocks away.
I let out a long breath, braced myself, and walked to the bank.
* * *
The bank closed at three, and I made it out the door with cash in hand some ten minutes before that. I hadn't understood how to go about getting telephonic confirmation between banks, something not easily done. However, I accomplished it in a little over two hours, and decided to wander the business district to see if I could spot my new traveling companion. I still had hopes of putting in a few more miles before stopping for the night. Fantasies of Dora telling me that since she'd napped, she'd drive all night danced at the fringes of my hopes.
I found her at a beauty salon, the fire of her red hair making her easy to spot from the sidewalk through the large glass window. Three people worked on her; one on her hair, brushing it out after what I guessed was a thorough washing; another on her fingernails, and a third on her toenails. One foot and one hand soaked in basins of liquid, presumably a cleanser or softener or possibly a combination of the two.
She didn't see me, so I quickly stepped out of view. As I walked back to Max I gave up hope on those extra miles.
She woke me well after dark. Sliding in quietly on Max's passenger side, she didn't disturb me immediately. Instead, she sent her perfume and other clean smells to sneak into my nostrils and do that.
"Sorry to disturb you," she told me quietly when I stirred and raised one eyelid.
I sat up. She had transformed into a lovely, slender woman in new slacks and blouse. Her muddy boots had been replaced by shoes with a couple inches of heel. The softly waved, burnished cloud of her hair reached down to her armpits.
"Hi," I said.
No smile. She held out a piece of paper. "Here's a bill of sale for the house. Did you get the rest of the money?"
"Yes." I took the single page document, then reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out the pre-counted wad of bills. She took it and counted. That rankled. Did she think I couldn't count, or that I'd try to stiff her?
Satisfied, she looked back at me. "It's late. There's a hotel down on Front Street. Why don't we stay the night? Supper and breakfast are my treat."
No more travel today, I thought with resignation. Dammit! I cranked Max up and we made our way to the hotel she'd mentioned, parking across the street. We left the shotgun and her brown paper wrapped package in the car and went inside with the rest of our belongings.
A couple of colored sacks waited by the front desk. The clerk watched us walk over. "Mrs. Jones?" he asked, clearly knowing the answer.
"Yes. And this is the gentleman I mentioned." She gestured to me.
The clerk turned his smile toward me. "What type of room would you like, sir?"
"Private bath," I said, pleased that she'd already alerted the hotel.
"Of course. Adjoining?"
It took me a second to understand his question. "That won't be necessary. Same floor, though, if that's possible."
He turned the ledger around for my signature. Milo Green, I wrote, immortalizing a lie. He turned it back around, looked at it a second, reached behind him for a key, and handed it to me. "Here you are, Mr. Green. Room 212." He clapped his hands and an ancient fellow with a tobacco-stained smile scurried over. He picked up Dora's bags and led us up to our rooms.
While the old fellow carried Dora's new belongings into her room, I went to 212 and dropped off my few belongings, consisting mainly of a change of underwear and my grooming kit.
Not sure what to do next, I decided to leave that to her. Fifteen minutes went by before she knocked on my door. I opened it.
"Supper?" she asked. She'd changed into an ordinary soft yellow house dress, its creases perfect as only a new dress's can be. Sensible almost to an extreme, it nonetheless looked dressy on her.
"Would you take offense if I were to make a personal observation, Mrs. Jones?"
Her blue eye's brow lifted. "I would say that depends on the nature of the observation, Mr. Green."
I hesitated, then just said it. "You're going to attract attention."
She allowed that to roll about in her brain for a second or so. "I'm sure you meant that as a compliment," she finally said. "But please don't offer such observations again."
My face hot with the blood of embarrassment, I apologized gracelessly. We walked down to the hotel's supper club without exchanging another word.
* * *
"Why are you really doing this?" she asked me over dessert. My faux pas behind us, our table talk had gone from desultory to almost friendly. The four-piece band played something slow and romantic, and several couples danced close on the small hardwood floor in the center of the room. A couple of men, obviously puzzled that I hadn't taken her out onto the floor, gallantly stepped in and asked her to dance. She declined them both graciously.
She daintily placed a teaspoon of ice cream between her lips and left her eyes lingering in mine as she awaited my answer.
"I'm just taking a trip," I explained. "Along the way I stumbled into your situation. That's all."
"But what is it to you? I'm not sure I understand."
"Do I need a reason?"
She picked up her wine glass and sipped, her eyes over the rim not revealing the workings behind them. Maybe it's because we've both got full bellies and three glasses of wine under our belts, I thought, or maybe it's because I've always been a sucker for redheads, but that look of hers seemed almost come-hitherish.
I shook my head slightly to clear that hallucination. She's not the come-hitherish sort, I explained to myself. She's the twelve-gauge sort.
"I suppose not," she admitted. "It's just that I usually like to understand the ways of things, and I get uncomfortable when I don't. And I don't understand this situation we're in, although I confess I trust you. I only met you twenty-two hours ago, and here we are traveling together, staying in a hotel together, a hundred miles from home and having supper in this club. I don't know why you're bothering with me at all. What do you have to gain by this? Anything?"
"Well, I now own a house, for starters." I grinned, pleased by her string of compliments.
"You're being evasive, Mr. Green." Her forehead furrowed slightly.
I lifted my glass of wine in a salute. "I don't have an answer to evade giving you, Mrs. Jones. I hope you don't suspect that I'm after any special, uh, favors."
She leaned back, twirling her wineglass by the stem. The red liquid inside swirled about in a shallow funnel. Thought behind her eyes lent them a slightly unfocused look. "You were nice to me before you knew anything at all about me, Milo. So I'm beginning suspect that you're just a nice person. Didn't your kind die off with the last ice age?" She took another healthy sip of wine.
Uneasy about that comment, I suggested she quit thinking so hard. "You're thinking too hard, Mrs. Jones. Try not to remember bad times for awhile. Have another glass of wine or another dessert. Accept an invitation to dance. No one here knows you just buried your husband. All anyone sees is a, uh, woman with a blind and ignorant escort. Maybe I'm your brother or something, and that's why we're not dancing. Go ahead and have fun. Unwind."
She put down her wine glass and rested her chin on her hands as she looked at me. "I'm already feeling a little unraveled, Milo. But as far as dancing goes, I've turned down two gentlemen. I'm sure no one else will ask me."
I took that to mean that she would consider dancing if asked again. "I could return to my room. If I'm gone those fellows won't take long to ask you to dance again."
"A lady doesn't sit alone in a supper club," Dora scolded quietly. "Some men might get the wrong idea."
Too much wine, I thought. She was right. I was acting stupid. Was that more irritation I felt? Having my social shortcomings so surgically pointed out didn't set well. "Maybe if you and I dance a time or two those other men might get the idea that you're in a dancing mood now."
She sat and looked at me for a moment. The orchestra started another slow and romantic number. "Why do you want me to dance? What's the hurry?"
"None," I said, frustrated. "Does there have to be a reason or excuse for everything?"
"Neither of us needs an excuse for anything here in Ogallala, Mr. Green."
"All right then. No excuses. Will you dance with me, Mrs. Jones?"
She stood. "And you don't need to be so formal, Milo."
I looked up at her. "Alright. Will you dance with me, Pandy?"
Her blue eyebrow raised in apparent surprise. "Uh - well, yes."
On the dance floor she came into my arms and against me. We moved to the music, and focusing on the danger she represented became difficult. The scent of her hair, the feel of her slimness close to me, the ease with which we moved together all conspired to drain me of good judgement. She rested her head on my shoulder. Her breath warmed my neck.
When the music ended we remained on the floor, hand in hand by unspoken agreement, until the next number started. We danced that one as well.
After our fourth dance we returned to our table. Without discussing the matter or giving any other gentlemen a shot at her, Pandy paid our bill and we left the club, wobbling a bit as we returned to our rooms. My better judgement had long since retired, allowing awareness of her as a woman to push its way into the forefront of my brain. The warning voices shouting of danger struggled to be heard.
At her door she turned to me. She held out her hand. "Good night, Milo."
I shook her slender calloused hand. "See you at breakfast, for which you will also pay." What I wanted to say is, may I come in.
"With pleasure. I've had a fine time tonight, Milo."
"Then we'll do it again tomorrow night, Pandy," I suggested.
"Yes, if that's what you want, that's what we'll do," she said, a quick smile flashing across her lips. She must have realized that she'd smiled, because it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. I looked at those lips, those red and generous lips. I thought it would be nice to kiss lips like those one day. Surely there was a woman for me somewhere with lips like those.
"That's what I want," I told her. "Good night."
Despite my farewell we stood there holding hands and looking at each other. She finally spoke. "I haven't even thanked you yet, have I? I've been so terribly self-absorbed that I haven't even said a simple 'thank you'."
"I think you have." I couldn't remember.
"I haven't." She squeezed my hand. "I'd remember. I've been a real sourpuss." Her eyes brimmed with pleasure. "Thank you for everything, Milo."
"It's nothing really," I told her, almost embarrassed. "Good night. See you for breakfast. Let's try to get an early start tomorrow; we have a lot of miles to catch up. How does hitting the road at seven o'clock sound?"
She nodded. "Okay, if that's what you want. Breakfast at six thirty, then?"
How many times had I heard 'If that's what you want' recently? What should I make of it?
One more look at those lips, then - "Yeah. Sleep well, Pandy."
"I will. And again, thank you." She opened her door and went into her room. A quick glance over her shoulder to see if I was still there, which I was, then a door closing. The night ended.
Dreams of a pretty powder keg with a lit fuse tormented me the rest of the night.
My head felt blunted the next morning, and my mouth tasted foul. I cleaned myself up as best I could, deciding there was nothing to do about the network of red lines in my eyes, and packed.
She'd smiled, I remembered. How many bereaved widows can claim to have smiled on the same day they buried their husbands? Not many, I'd have bet.
Her image floated to the front of my imagination. How could this calm and awkwardly attractive woman be that same ugly girl I'd so mistreated lo those ten years earlier?
I corrected myself. She'd made a point of telling me she wasn't a girl. Further correction: cancel that 'bereaved widow' thought. She'd also made a point of saying she wouldn't miss him.
Thinking didn't come easy those first few minutes of March second, but I kept at it anyway. Leaping to the insight that the torment I'd caused those many years ago might have turned her into an angry rebel and maybe even led to that disastrous marriage - and miscarriage - pained me almost to nausea. I sat on the rumpled bed and put my face into my hands and groaned. How much of how she lives in the future will also be at least partly a result of those two years of torment in Grand Prairie? How much hatred still burned inside her, still directed her dealings with the rest of the world? Was redemption even possible?
I stood and paced over to the window overlooking the street. The sun had bleached the eastern sky. Dawn approached.
Maybe I should just introduce myself properly, I thought. Then, if she doesn't fill me full of holes first, she can kick my ass and get it all out of her system. True, I might have to spend a little time in the hospital, but hey. I'd done that before, and anyway I could afford it.
I thought about the look in her eyes, those blue and green searchlights, as she stood in her doorway the previous evening. No anger there, I decided. If anything, pleasure. Or at least the residues of a pleasant evening. And me - what about me? When was the last time I'd been knocked so completely sideways by a woman, especially one so dangerous? One day! One idiotic, Mister Goody-Goody day, the day she buries her husband, and look at me! Drooling over a skinny redhead! What was I thinking?
Clearly I hadn't been thinking. I should have left her at her hovel of a house, receipts in hand, to get on with her life. Well, she's got to go, I vowed. Get her to her parents' house quick. I've left nicer, much less dangerous girls for much less reason than that. What's one more?
I turned and finished packing. Another risk dawned on me: there were a number of items in the car's glove box that carried my real name. I realized that she could have looked in there at any time. She still could.
I'd better see if she's ready for breakfast, I decided in a semi-panic, suddenly not wanting to let her out of my sight.
* * *
She didn't answer my knock at her door, so I went to the hotel coffee shop. She sat at a corner table, an empty plate of what might have once been eggs and fried potatoes and a coffee cup in front of her. She wore the same slacks and blouse she'd worn the day before. Her coppery hair hid itself in a severe bun tied on the back of her head. She looked ready for the road and, despite her no-nonsense but wraith-like appearance, she pleased the eye.
She looked up as I walked over, then blushed and broke eye contact, so I'm not sure I hid my appreciation for her appearance. I sat.
"You're late, Mr. Green," she told me, right off the bat. Ever perceptive, I deduced we wouldn't be using first names.
A wall clock over the entry to the coffee shop said six forty. I apologized.
"Never mind. Listen, I owe you an explanation," she said. Still no 'good morning.'
Eye contact returned. Little jolts of pleasure rippled through my guts. "I hope you'll attribute last night's, uh, behavior to a good meal and good music and - and an opportunity to relax. I'm not used to being - uh, well fed and carefree." She blinked a couple times and shifted her eyes off my face.
I didn't want to hear any morning-after remorse from this woman. "Thank you, Mrs. Jones. But you don't need to explain. Frankly, I admire your resiliency."
She cocked an eyebrow. "Resiliency?"
"You're tough, Mrs. Jones." The waitress quietly poured me a cup of coffee and left.
But Pandy had moved on with her thinking. "Do you know when I smiled last?"
I nodded. "Last night."
Her eyes moistened up. "No, I mean before that."
I frowned. Why was she getting weepy? "No, I don't."
Her lids overflowed. "Me neither. Please excuse me." And with that she stood and quick-stepped out of the dining room. Male heads turned.
I sat there and wondered what I'd said wrong. Should I have called her something besides tough? Had I said or done something inconsiderate?
I flagged down a waitress and ordered breakfast.
* * *
Pandy opened her door at my knock later. She stepped aside and let me in. No trace of tears remained. "We did agree on seven o'clock," I reminded her. "It's about a quarter after now."
"I know," she said, then walked over to the bed and sat. "I think - I think I'd like to stay here one more day."
Crap! "Okay. I'll go tell the desk clerk. Can I bring you anything?"
She shook her head. "I'll be fine. Supper at seven tonight?"
"I was about to ask you the same thing. Would you like to do something earlier? Lunch, maybe? Drive down to the park by the river and watch the ice chunks flow downstream?"
She shook her head. "I'm - I'm confused and exhausted, Milo. I might eat if I get hungry, but mostly I need to rest and think." She put her fingertips against her forehead and massaged for a moment.
An alarming temptation to sit next to her and put an arm around her shoulders and whisper comforting things swept over me. Go ahead, part of me said, it's the human thing to do. Get the hell out of here, the smart part of me said. I hastily stepped to the door. "I'll go tell the desk clerk," I said from the safety of the open doorway.
"Milo -" I heard from behind me, but I closed the door and scampered down the stairs to the desk. What the hell was I thinking, I chided myself. Stay away from her, she's unpredictable and dangerous.
Arrangements made for another day, I dropped my laundry off with the hotel's cleaning service, then stepped outside to take a walk.
The sun remained unblocked by any clouds, so the day had warmed to a comfortable level. I walked up a block to Main Street and window-shopped for a time, not particularly impressed with what I saw.
Time dragged viciously. I tried to force myself to stop thinking about her. That didn't work, as anyone who has ever tried to force themselves to stop thinking about something would expect. I took another walk around town. That doesn't take long in Ogallala. I went out to Max and removed everything from the glove box that had my name on it and put the incriminating documents behind the cushion in the back seat. I unloaded the shotgun and put the shells - double aught buck, serious loads - in the newly emptied glove box. Max took on a fresh load of gasoline, had his oil checked, then got bathed and the interior detailed to better than new. I took my muddy shoes to the hotel shoe shine boy and he dressed them up until they glowed.
I tried to keep busy.
About four o'clock she knocked on my door. She'd changed into the house dress she'd worn to supper the previous evening, and taken down her hair and brushed it into loose waves. She'd taken pains to look nice.
Hard desire sprang out of nowhere at my throat, full-grown and voracious, and choked the breath out of me.
She paused uncertainly in the doorway until I recovered enough of my wits to invite her in. The door closed behind her, she stepped close, treating me to the scent of fresh perfume mixed with the heat of her closeness. She looked at me, those eyes broadcasting, those red, lush lips forming words. "Hello, Milo. I know it's not seven o'clock. I hope I'm not disturbing you."
Doing my best to appear nonchalant, I took a couple steps backward and sat on my bed. "Not at all," I lied. "Please make yourself comfortable."
She came and sat beside me. Close beside me. Arm-touching close beside me. Her legs dangled over the side of the bed, ankles crossed. Silence for a short moment as our eyes linked.
She spoke. "I told you earlier that I'm confused. That I needed to rest and think. So much bad has happened over the last couple years that I was afraid that I was - was imagining things. I thought being alone for a few hours would make things clearer."
She waited for me to comment, but I couldn't. I didn't know what she was leading up to. So she took my hand and continued.
"Things did get clearer, Milo."
"Oh?" I croaked. My hand felt slimy in hers. I hoped she didn't notice.
"Yes. You've been very nice to me, and I'm not talking about the money. You've listened to my troubles and stories. You're willing to take me home. You don't question me. You don't judge me. You treat me with civility and kindness. You don't show offense when I say something - something less than kind. You tolerate my - my abrupt nature. I feel - I feel cared for, Milo." The color had disappeared from her face.
Her eyes seemed larger, her lips more lush. "Any man would care for you," I said. I half-closed my eyes and fought the longing in my belly.
She shook her head very slowly. "That isn't my experience."
"Well, you'll only have good experiences with me."
"That's been true ever since we met," she said. "You make me feel - good."
There would never be a better moment to tell it all. "Pandy," I said with vast reluctance, "I have to make a confession."
Her eyelids crinkled in a squinty frown. "Confession?"
"Yes." Afraid that staying close to her would subvert my almost non-existent resolve, I stood and stepped away from the bed. "Before we spend more time in each other's company, you should know -"
Tap tap tap
Crap! A knock on the door! I turned and, hands shaking with the afterburn of high octane lust, I opened the door. A deputy stood there. I know he was a deputy, because he had a badge on his chest that said 'deputy.' I guessed his age at less than thirty. His haircut and overall fitness hinted that he'd seen time in the military.
He looked at each of us, then again. Finally his eyes rested on Pandy, who had risen from the bed to stand beside me. "Mrs. Jones? Mrs. Pandora Jones?"
The high color of passion drained out of her face. "Yes?" Her eyes resembled those I'd seen in the last seconds over my bayonet: terror, understanding, acceptance.
The deputy held out a folded piece of paper. "Deputy Amundsen, Ma'am. I've been asked by the sheriff's office in Patience to hold you until they arrive to pick you up. They're placing you under arrest for the murder of your husband."