Dominoes

22 Apr

 

Dominoes

L. Stewart Marsden

Part One

Frank Kramer rolled over and slowly opened one eye. The lids stuck from dried rheum, and he rubbed the mucus away. His vision was blurred, then cleared as he blinked repeatedly. 

The red digital numerals of his bed stand table clock blocked to form 4:30. He had awakened an hour earlier than normal, and his brain seemed to swim loosely in his skull. 

He needed a day off. His routine of clambering out of bed and shuffling to the bathroom, turning on the light after he peed, then brushing his teeth and showering was the rote of his existence. Gulping down instant coffee, he would toast an English muffin and spread butter and a thin layer of strawberry jam on the pocked surface. That was his breakfast day-in and day-out. He would quickly make a peanut butter sandwich with sliced bananas and mayonnaise, seal it in a zip-lock sandwich bag which he tossed into his battered black lunch box. A granola bar for good measure, and a thermos of seltzer water.

The drive out to the toll booth on I-77 was the same turns and the same speeds. He would arrive, and carefully cross to his booth on Lane Three, where Lucius was waiting to be relieved — literally. Traffic through the toll booth would be increasing, headlights of hundreds of cars, trucks going in two directions signaled the beginning of another exciting day.

But today? Today he planned to stay in bed. Past his 5:30 beep-beep-beep alarm. Past his usual bathroom rituals. Past his English muffin breakfast and instant coffee. Past the zombie-like preparation of his lunch. Past the 25-minute drive of the same turns and the same speeds to the Lane Three toll booth on I-77.

Lucius could just fucking wet his pants today. 

Frank turned off his alarm clock, flipped over on his other side, fluffed his pillow, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.

_____

Lucius Mindowicz begin to stir in his seat inside the booth on Lane Three. It had been a slow night, and only a few hundred dozen cars or trucks had slowed down enough to toss the necessary change into the wide plastic coin gathering basket just below his lane window. Every now and then a car would zip through without slowing, but they had the barcode stickers on their windshields that were prepaid. Almost never did someone try to cheat the system. Once there was a high-speed chase when he thought the driver being chased would lose control at the toll booth, but that was Lane Five, and somehow the driver sped through going Lucius figured a hundred or more. The pursuing highway patrol cars did slow down — but not much.

He thought there ought to be a law that if a trooper can get the license plate number of the car, the chase should be stopped. Catch the guy later when he pulls into a combo gas and Subway station. Of course, the effing defense lawyers are the ones that would make mincemeat out of that law. 

As boring as his job was, Lucius liked the money and the company benefits. Beats working the drive-through at McDonald’s, he figured. He had his headphones, and an iPad that was one of the perks, which he could use to watch Netflix — even though he wasn’t supposed to do that on duty. But who cares? Everyone does it! Except for that perky little bitch in Lane Two who was working towards becoming a cop.

He looked at his watch. It was 6:00. Almost done with the shift. Lucius knew Frank was on his way, and so he let up a bit on pinching off the need to pee. Frank would come walking up in just a few minutes, and Lucius would put the change in the money bag and print out a total receipt, which he would toss into the bag as well. In five years he had never come up short. If he ever did, he knew he wouldn’t hear the last of it from little Miss Perky Bitch.

The Morning Drive Guys were on the radio, talking and laughing about Beyoncé, or some other celebrity — making crude jokes and guffawing. He liked their political polls. “If 45 couldn’t get around in a limo, a helicopter, or Air Force One, which of these modes of transportation would he likely use? A tricycle … a skateboard … a Segway … or a golf cart? And why?”

Lucius laughed at the call-ins and their answers — even though he was a big Trump supporter. Boy were the Democrats in for a surprise in 2020, he thought. There was a signed photo of Trump with the American flag in the background, and the words “Make America Great Again!” taped to the wall of the booth where it couldn’t be seen. It was against regulations, but even Miss Snot Nose Perky Bitch hadn’t complained.

He looked at the clock again. It was 6:20 and still no sign of Frank. Where the hell was he? By this time Lucius was shaking his legs like they were wings he had to go so bad. On the floor was an empty plastic milk carton for use in emergencies, and if he absolutely had to, he’d use it. He preferred to use the Porta John standing in the area where the toll booth operators parked. But, when you gotta go…

And he had to go.

Fuck Frank! Lucius grabbed the milk carton and unzipped, streaming his urgent flow noisily into the container. He tapped off, capped the jug, and was in the process of zipping up when bright lights on the road blinded him. He heard the screeching of tires as the car — or whatever kind of vehicle it was — shot right at him.

“Oh, shit!”

_____

Callie Farmer was late. It was the third time in the month, and the third strike. She had done all she could this morning not to be late, but the gods were against her. Her three-month-old had screamed in pain all night, and nothing she could do helped.

“He’s got the colic,” her mother stated matter-of-factly, a long ash bending toward the floor from her cigarette.

“That’s not helpful, Momma!”

“I used to put bourbon on my finger and let you suck it when you was a baby and had it.”

“I’m not going to do that! Just go the hell back to bed!”

“Can’t. Too much noise,” she said as she opened the refrigerator and grabbed a can of beer. “If you want, I can rock him and you can go back to bed. You can’t afford to be late to work again.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, goddamit!”

“Don’t use that attitude with me, girl.”

“Or what? What, Momma?”

“Gimme that baby, girl. I’ll get him to sleep.”

And she did. And Callie hated that she did. And hated her mother smoking around the baby, and drinking beer around the baby. And most of all, hated her mother.

“Well, I guess you can stay here,” she had told Callie who showed up on the doorstep eight months pregnant. “But you gotta show me some respect. AND you gotta go git a goddam job after the baby comes. You ain’t freeloadin’ here, girl.”

Callie had no choice. At least that she could count on. And family is family. She had thought maybe this would be a new start for her and her mother.

She thought wrong.

The Kia was on its last legs. Three of four plugs still sparked, and half the time the fuel line barely squeezed enough gas to the engine to turn over. Really cold mornings were worse, as the heater had long quit throwing out much more than lukewarm air. But it was what she had, and she had to make do.

She hated working at the Circle K. On her feet for eight hours, same Muzak piped in over the ceiling speakers — Christmas being the worst. 

Dealing with customers who grunted and never spoke, unless to complain.

“You’re out of toilet paper/hand soap/paper towels/sanitary seat covers in the bathroom. And the lock doesn’t work, either.”

“I’m well over 18.”

“Sorry, Sir, but by law I have to card you for cigarettes and beer.”

“Goddam communist country is what we’re becoming.”

People taking a penny and not leaving a penny.

And the creepy manager, who came in to check inventory and reshelve stock. She didn’t know what nationality he was, but his hair was slick with hair grease that had an unpleasant odor. Had she been pregnant, she knew she would have to rush to the bathroom to retch every time he came near her — which was too often.

“This is the second time you are late,” he scolded her. “I like you very much, Callie, and I would very much like for you to succeed at your work. But, if you are late one more time, I will have to find someone else who is more reliable than you. But, I am a reasonable man, Callie. I am not wanting to have to fire you. Perhaps we might come to an understanding?”

She understood, all right. And wanted nothing to do with her manager other than a working relationship.

“That is your choice, Callie. Never say I was anything but reasonable and businesslike with you. So … one more time late? Yes? You understand?”

Yes.

She awoke late and scrambled to take a shower — in and out of the bathroom in record time — deferring her make-up and hair until she was on the road. The drive was at least 40 minutes, and she had to clock in at 6:45. It was 6:10. As long as traffic was light …

It was not. And as she frantically applied eyeliner and lipstick, holding the wheel with her knees, she sped up I-77 towards the toll booths. She pressed the gas pedal down, the Kia shaking with effort.

Change! Did she have her purse? Ah, there on the passenger seat. She reached into her purse with her right hand and found the Tic-Tack tin where she kept loose coins.

“And what do you think the President should use for travel?” the DJ asked his next caller. 

She couldn’t open the tin with one hand — then did — and change spilled out onto the seat and car floor.

“Damn!”

“It’s The Morning Drive Guys, and we are coming up on 6:53! Next caller …”

“Damndamndamndamn!”

The lights of the toll booth appeared out of the morning fog, and Callie flipped on the ceiling light to search for coins.

CORRECT CHANGE LANE ONLY read the white-lettered blue sign as she zipped under it, headed for Lane Three. 

Suddenly someone from her left veered to the right across lanes, and Callie had to jerk her wheel to the left, stomping on what she thought was the brake pedal, but was not. Her headlights illumined the toll booth, and a surprised attendant waving his arms frantically — a plastic milk carton in one hand — his eyes filled with surprise. 

“Goddamit!” Callie screamed. “Late again!”

_____

Light poured into the bedroom, and Frank Kramer could sleep no longer. The red digital numerals of his bedside table alarm clock blocked to form 8:45. He reached over and turned on the clock radio, slinging his right arm back over his face to block the morning. He wondered why no one from work had called to see where he was.

“This is The Morning Drive Guys on your favorite listening station. Let’s break for your News on the Sixes (musical ditty) … six minutes of breaking news to keep you informed, brought to you by Kia of Canton …

“Matt this is Delores with breaking news about a fatal accident that occurred earlier today when a car slammed into one of the toll booths on I-77. Highway Patrol reports at least two fatalities, and possibly a third. The driver of a car speeding north crashed into the Lane Three toll booth at around 6:55 this morning. The driver and attendant were both pronounced dead at the scene, but authorities are also concerned with an attendant who is missing and was supposed to relieve that slain attendant. More as information becomes available, Matt.”

“Thanks, Delores. Now more callers on what kind of transportation should the president …”

Frank turned the radio off and turned on his back, staring at the popcorn ceiling of his bedroom.

“Damn!”

_____

 

Part Two

John Farmer’s name adequately described him: solid, strong, self-confident, handsome. He was the kid every mother hoped her daughter would bring home during Spring Break from college.

He was also the kind of guy girls didn’t want their mothers to meet. They didn’t want the competition.

Dad’s always stuck out their hands, and were impressed by his firm grip and eye-to-eye contact. 

“So, John — what’re you majoring in?”

“Premed, Sir.” Two points. One for premed, one for “sir.”

“You want to be a doctor? What specialty?”

“Trauma. Probably an ER doc — though they call the ER the ED now in most hospitals. Emergency medicine has become more than the emergency room.”

“Why that specialty, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Sure. Well, a family member died from head trauma years ago.”

Awkwardly, “Oh. I’m sorry about that.”

“It was his mother, Dad.”

“Oh! Gosh —“

“It’s okay, Sir. I was a baby at the time. I never really knew her. My grandmother raised me.”

And at dinner, the conversation would drift about. John mentioned he played baseball in high school. 

“Professional scouts were looking at him!”

“Nice!”

“But that’s not my goal, and I really don’t have time to play with everything else I have on my plate.”

He worked as an EMT for Orange County.

“Helps pay my rent. My scholarship money pays the rest.”

“Morehead Scholar, Dad.” 

Six points. Two for working, two for no college debt, and two for being a Morehead. Eyes wide and big grins and pats on the back.

That was pretty much his experience whenever and wherever he was taken “to meet the folks.”

But those relationships hardly ever stuck. And he wasn’t sure why not. Maybe because his mother died tragically, and he’d never known her. Maybe because his grandmother had not died, and he did know her. Maybe because he had never known his father, nor the circumstances of his coming to be. When asked, his grandmother simply popped another beer and lit another cigarette.

“How’s knowing gonna change what is? You are who you determine yourself to be. That should suffice.”

Which, all in all, was pretty good advice — albeit a bit on the calloused side of things.

Maybe it was due to keeping his guard up all of the time. He had experienced enough tragedy, and he was finally off on his own and commander of his own vessel. His boat was just large enough for one at this point in his life, and he knew he could at least determine how he responded to all of the challenges in life. Why add another person into the mix?

_____

 

Tamara Johnson leaned over the console of the exercise bike, sweat dripping from the end of her nose, which she blew away with a forceful puff. Three more minutes to go, so she stepped up her pedaling to squeeze out every ounce of body fat she could manage.

She wasn’t a fitness junky. She had simple observed herself in a Nordstrom dressing room mirror and decided enough was enough. Average is how she described her physique on Zoosk. There should be another category, like, What the hell’s wrong with average and at least I’m not bulimic?

But she worked in a traditionally man’s world — and despite her acceptance among the other emergency medical techs, was well aware of the onus she carried on the job. Had to be stronger than normal. Had to be at the top of the skills list. Had to put up with the occasional man-talk in the break room and the kitchen. Had to overcome the stereotyping that if she was an EMT, she must be lesbian. She talked rough because the talk was rough. She wore her hair short because she thought long hair was a potential danger on the job, and she didn’t want to have to keep brushing it aside while she administered CPR or the paddles.

She also had to overcome the resentment of the Old Guard EMT’s, who in spite of declaring their support for women EMT’s, were steeped in the “way things used to be.” They were men she tolerated, knowing it unlikely they would somehow have a eureka experience about her and suddenly “see the light.” She had one thing on them, however: they were old and she was not. She could wait.

Her girl friends said she ought to take it to the top whenever issues of sexism inevitably arose (and there were so many ways those issues could surface), but she thought better of it. She was smart enough to know you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, something her dad used to say often before he passed. But, if someone did cross the physical line, she was prepared.

Now, however, there was a new potential conflict: John Farmer — the new kid on the street. At least with his hiring Tamara was no longer on the bottom rung, where she had persevered for three years. Farmer replaced her, and she was his senior in terms of experience. But this was a temporary stopover for the young guy, who had no time to stop and take a piss his schedule was so crammed. From being on call at the station to going to school, he had no time for anything else. And when he was on call, he was studying. Biology, chemistry, applied mathematics and courses she didn’t know existed.

The problem was she liked him. And so did all the other squad members. But they called him “the kid,” like he was a rookie — which he was — with potential — which he definitely had. He did his job, learned as much as he could about being an EMT and its expectations by the side of his new mentors. Their admiration was because he was their new brother in the family. Hers was a bit more.

Tamara, hoping none of the others would not notice, had begun to dress for work a little differently since Farmer’s arrival. Wear makeup. Splash on cologne — but not like her male counterparts did, which was to literally bathe in Ax aftershave. Frustrated, her attempts at small talk with Farmer were wasted on the guy. His head was always miles away — thinking about some class or test. Or crouched in a corner by himself with his laptop, pecking away at a paper, or doing required research.

She chalked up her interest to infatuation. A handsome guy — physically fit and mentally sharp. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. A real Boy Scout. She rated herself as beneath the standard Farmer was probably used to. But then, measuring up had always been a challenge she normally accepted with gusto. 

She discontentedly decided to content herself with a platonic and strictly business relationship with John Farmer. He had his life. She had hers. 

_____

 

Carlton Barks pulled into the entrance to The Red Roof Inn and found a parking space. He turned the ignition off and the truck shuddered to a stop, coughing and spewing a bit as normal. He reached down on the floorboard and grabbed the red dog lead. On cue, Sadie jumped to her feet and nosed him while he hooked the lead to her collar. They were two dogs of a kind. She, a rescue wire-haired mix he found in Texas, and he, a rescued wire-haired hombre who travelled from place to place, doing odd carpentry jobs. 

Normally he followed the spring storms from Texas up through Oklahoma and Nebraska, helping locals clean up the aftermath in the wake of an F2 or 3. Sometimes larger. Then his practice was to stay on and rebuild. He did that for years, and what some folks might say was an iffy lifestyle, he found to be all he wanted or needed.

He wasn’t a gouger nor a cheat. He knew a lot of traveling crews that bit down hard on little old ladies, promising a roof repair and requiring a down payment for materials and the work. They’d have a roll of roofing paper and lay down one or two rows, break for lunch — asking the little old ladies for the nearest diner — then disappear into the sunset, taking the down payment with them.

Not Barks. He was rough, but he had a soul, what was left of it.

At the Red Roof Inn counter he slapped a hundred-dollar bill down for a room. He never paid by credit — always cash. At the Red Roofs he and Sadie could get a few nights sleep on real beds, and he could catch up on the local happenings on TV. Plus they provided breakfast — if you could call it that. The Danish were usually stale, the apples bruised and brown, and the coffee scalding. Still, for the price it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

And when the cash was gone, he knew it was time to find work. Normally that wasn’t hard to do, following the storms and all. Occasionally he and Sadie bunked out in the cab of his truck. Gas was his main expense. He carried a prepaid flip phone for emergencies — only for 911 calls. He didn’t really know anyone else he could call if he was in a jamb.

This spring he headed east through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle; then northeast through Georgia, South Carolina, and into North Carolina. He opted for what he told Sadie was the “middle route,” I-75 to Macon, then I-20 to Columbia, then north to Charlotte. He was in no hurry, and worked some jobs along the way — a few roofs, some tree cutting, window replacements. 

Up in the hurricane states he had become well-known, and was busy from the time he crossed into twister territory. In the east — not so much. His dingy white magnetic signs, which he stuck to either door of his truck, read Good, Honest Work at Good, Honest Prices. He would ask at diners and gas stations if anyone knew anyone that needed work. That seemed to work fine. At least, when he and Sadie got down to half a tank in the truck, work always came his way.

He never asked for upfront money. “Pay me when I’ve done the job,” he’d say, and shake hands on it. Generally he had no problems getting paid. He took a check once in Albuquerque that bounced, so after that he always asked for cash. No credit cards.

His estimates were scrawled out on a yellow sheet of blue-lined pad paper — in pencil. And when it came to collecting his due, he was always right on the money. No surprises. Just good honest work at good honest prices.

Once he had been asked if he were an Irish Traveler by a Sheriff’s deputy outside Aiken. Barks knew of their reputation. They were basically con artists in the home repair trade. A smirch on the reputation of the good, honest work guys. The deputy ran a computer query while Barks leaned against the end of his truck and smoked a cigarette. Sadie found shade just underneath the truckbed. He’d been pulled many times, and knew the ropes well. Stay calm. Answer the questions politely. Tell the officer you have an unloaded revolver in the glove compartment where you also keep your gun permit. In other words, lessen the chance of some law enforcer getting nervous about you. Then you got trouble, and trouble was what Barks wanted none of. And normally, as in this case, the deputy walked back and handed back Barks license, with a polite thank you sir, you are free to go, have a nice day.

Barks hadn’t always been this way. Twenty years earlier he had walked on the wild side, and whiskey, fast cars, and loose women were far more important than good work at a fair price. 

Hence the reason for traveling east this spring. There was a gal he had a short fling with. Someone who had robbed him of his senses, and who had torn his heart out. He could see her at will by closing his eyes. Pretty brunette. Bright eyes. Cherry lips. And innocent as a new-born calf. She had run off from her home and mother — which apparently was the family curse, her mother doing the same thing at a similar age. 

Word had gotten back that she was pregnant, and she had gone home to her mother. Pregnant. She never called him nor wrote to say the baby was his, so he assumed it was not. But after he straightened out his zig-zagging life, Barks began to wonder. And twenty years later decided it was time to quit wondering and find out. 

All he knew was her name: Callie Farmer. And where she had lived with her mother — a small town outside Charlotte.

_____

 

“Hey! Batter-batter-batter!” shouted the shortstop, pounding his glove with his balled up other hand.

The pitcher touched the front bill of his ball cap, and looked around. Man on second and one on first, who dared a throw by stretching a long lead off the base.

John Farmer stepped out of the batter’s box to adjust his helmet, gripping down on the rubberized tape spiraling down the shaft of his aluminum bat. He quickly glanced at the score. The Red Raiders were down two runs in the bottom of the ninth, and the count was full. He was the winning run in this state championship game.

He stepped back into the batter’s box and took a practice swing. The chatter started up in the infield again as the pitcher and catcher came into agreement after shaking off several suggestions. Finally  nodding, and with a slight dip of his chin, the pitcher drew his glove up, masking his fingers around the ball.

Farmer closed out all noise — like his favorite scene in The Natural — and he was Roy Hobbs at the plate. He felt sweat run down his neck, and from his groin down the inside of his back leg. His bat drew tiny circles at the thick end. The pitcher leaned forward again, and began his windup. Arms and legs following precise choreography — the ball still hidden in his large leather glove. Leaning back, out popped a leg as he cocked his arm, finishing his throw with arm and fingers extended, back leg swinging around just below the rubber on the raised mound.

Farmer could see the stitches in the calfskin as the missile hurtled toward the plate: knuckleball, down and away, the pitcher’s favorite throw. But also Farmer’s favorite pitch to hit. His left leg up in his chest, his back leg drove him forward towards the ball, his bat cutting low and up with just enough speed to connect.

Ping! went the hit, just over the third baseman’s outstretched glove, slowly climbing like a lumbering passenger jet. Up, up, up — and well over the left field fence, inside the left field line. Home run! State Championship! Hero!

And as he bounce-jogged around third and into home, Farmer looked up to where his ecstatic mother and father normally sat, hugging and kissing wildly, waving and giving him the thumbs up.

Then the alarm clock would buzz and bring him back to reality, and his dream evaporated.

A Sunday, he could have slept in. But there was too much to do. This was his off-weekend as an EMT, and he needed to take advantage of it to catch up on his studies. If he pushed himself, he could make the second of a double-header between Carolina and Clemson at Bryson Field.

He showered and dressed quickly, and grabbed the leather shoulder bag that contained his life, then headed for the library, where he found a favorite nook that kept him undisturbed by classmates. He was popular on his own, without playing baseball or going the frat route. Three more semesters of hard work and grind. Then the MCATs, and then med school applications and then sweat it out.

“You’ll be a shoo-in!” his friends told him. While he appreciated their encouragement, it wasn’t their dream on the line. Not until he held his acceptance letter in hand would he dare relax.

He pushed himself until mid-afternoon, when he decided he had earned at least a break of a couple of innings, and headed for Boshamer Stadium. He grabbed a couple of slices of pizza and a coke on the way in, and found a spot where he could — again — be to himself.

The spring sun felt good on his face and arms and bare legs. A slight breeze swirled about, kicking up dust on the mound. The Heels were in the field, whipping the ball around in preparation for the start of the second game. They had dropped the first to the Tigers 5 – 2. He closed his eyes and listened, his imagination returning to his early morning dream.

A shadow fell on his face, which he first thought to be an afternoon cloud.

“Mind if I join you?” an unrecognizable voice directed at him. Farmer opened his eyes, and a shadowed man sat down on the next seat.

“Do I know you?” Farmer asked.

“I don’t think so. Heard you play ball.”

“Used to. Don’t have time.” Farmer sat up and looked at the man. He was clad in faded jeans and a plaid short-sleeved shirt, opened to his breast bone. His boots were worn, as was the straw cowboy hat perched on his head. With his sunglasses, the man reminded Farmer of Richard Petty.

The man reached out his hand. “I’m Carlton.”

“My name’s John,” he returned his hand and gripped Carlton’s.

“Nice grip!”

“You seem kinda familiar, but I don’t know why, Carlton.”

“Well, we’ve never met, John. But we do have a connection.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“It’s a who. Callie Farmer.”

“My mom?”

“Your mom.”

_____

Well that sure as shit didn’t go down good, Carlton thought as he tugged on Sadie’s leash, who was nose-sweeping the sidewalk and stopped every two or three feet to sniff.

He guessed it was all a mistake, gallivanting across the south to meet someone who might be his son after all these years. What the hell was he thinking?

***

“Are you telling me you’re my dad?” The blood had drained from John Farmer’s face, and it was as though he was plunging into shock.

“I can’t say for sure, son …”

“Please don’t call me that —”

“Sorry. Habit. I call everyone younger’n me son — not the gals, of course. Look, this was a big mistake on my part. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done this.”

“Well you did,” John replied, none too pleased. “Look, I can’t do this here. Do you mind if we go somewhere we can talk?”

“You willin’ to talk to me?”

“About my mother. I want to know about her, and Grandma wasn’t too keen on talking about her — except bad things.”

“I got my dog Sadie with me.”

“There’s a dog-friendly restaurant not far from here.”

***

They walked in awkward silence from the stadium across the campus. Dogwoods of all colors were in full bloom, and the grassy areas were covered with blankets and students taking advantage of the first good tanning rays, dressed down to nearly nothing.

“That a distraction for you?” said Carlton, nodding towards three comely coeds tossing a frisbee across one grassy lawn.

John laughed. “I’m too busy for that.”

The walk ended up on Franklin Street, and they crossed to a corner restaurant named “Sup Dogs.”

“We’re in luck — there’s an outside table vacant. You and Sadie grab a seat and I’ll go order. Burger or dogs?”

“Surprise me — whatever you think is the best. I’ll pay,” and he pulled out a $50 from his pocket.

“No — I got this. Your money’s no good here,” and disappeared into the building. A waitress came out with a bowl of water for Sadie who lapped thirstily.

Carlton sat back in his chair, listening to the sounds of various music swirl around the street, which was crowded with walkers of every age, color and gender — plus a few he had to look at to determine what they were. College town. He was a Texas Tech fan, and was glad he hadn’t worn that ball cap. All around him was a sea of light blue.

John emerged finally with a tray filled with food, which he put down on the table.

“What’s mine?”

“Whatever suits you.”

He chose a hot dog, buried with chili and relish, and fries.

“God, this is good!” Carlton mumbled after taking a bite. 

John grabbed a hamburger, layered with cheeses and lettuce, tomatoes and purple onions. He bit into the stacked treat, juice spurting out onto his chin. Carlton grabbed a paper napkin from the tray and handed it to him. They laughed as Daisy nearly jumped into John’s lap, begging shamelessly.

“So, how did you meet my mother?”

Carlton grabbed a fry, and thought a bit.

“I lived in Austin at the time. Those were my wild days. Didn’t have a job, didn’t have a truck, and no dog. And I rode a Harley.”

“A Harley?”

“Your mother had been in Waco a couple of weeks, and was working in a greasy spoon diner. I walked in, took one look, and that was it.”

“So what happened?”

“We were together constantly — except when she worked. She had a room near the diner at a two-bit motel, and I stayed with her until I began to ask myself what the hell was I doing? I knew she needed someone in her life who could care proper for her, and at the time, I didn’t think that was me.”

“And —- ?”

“And I left. I had a Mickey Mouse set of tools at the time, and headed west one morning early before she woke up. I got to Tucson when I realized I had made the worst mistake of my life, and I turned around. I made that 14-hour trip in six hours. But she was gone when I got back to the motel. I stayed there, working odd jobs in the area, thinking she might try to contact me at the motel. Just a hunch. Then I got a postcard from Six Flags, so I headed north — only ninety minutes away legally! Ninety minutes!

“I knew she’d try to find a job at Six Flags, and figured it would be with one of the park’s restaurants. She always complained Texans didn’t know the first thing about barbecue — that the only good barbecue is pulled pork. So it wasn’t to difficult to figure out which restaurant she probably worked at — JB’s Smokehouse — which is where I went.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but back then I was a looker, and it didn’t take too long to find out from one of the waitresses that Callie had gone back home, and had gone because she found out she was pregnant.”

John Farmer turned his head and avoided eye contact with Carlton.

“What then?”

“I wanted to go after her, I did. But I couldn’t. I was a kid. Young as you. And I knew myself enough to realize — if she was pregnant with my kid — that I knew nothing about being a father. Or a husband for that matter. 

“So I sold my Harley and bought a beat-up Chevy truck, and invested some money into better carpentry tools. I figured I ought to make something of myself before I chased after her so’s I had something more than just me to offer her.”

“And you never made anything of yourself — that’s why you didn’t come here and try to find her.”

“That’s not entirely true. She died before I could go.”

John paused a while, and scratched behind Sadie’s ears. He fed her a bit of his hamburger.

“So why now?”

“I don’t rightly know why now. I’ve been driftin’ for so long, traveling and working. I was so damn lonely — and angry with myself. If I had come back from Tucson earlier. Or got up to Six Flags before your mother took off. Things would be a world of different.”

“Perhaps. Do you think you’re my father?”

“Let me show you something to answer that.” He pulled out his billfold and dug behind his driver’s license. He pulled out a strip of three black and white photos. “We took these one night when a traveling carnival came through Waco.” He carefully unfolded the strip and handed it to John.

An attractive brunette, her haircut in pixy fashion, stared back at him from the past. Her eyes were round and bright, her smile contagious. She was beautiful. A young man dressed in a plaid long-sleeve shirt and a new cowboy hat was wrapped around her. John couldn’t take his eyes off his mother.

“This is the first picture I’ve  ever seen of my mother,” he said, tears streaking down the sides of his face.

“She was beautiful — outside and in. Your mother was the girl of my dreams. And who does that young man make you think of?”

“Well it’s obviously you years ago.”

“Look closer, John.”

He wiped the tears from his eyes and examined the man in the photo. Gradually, the image came into focus.”

“That’s me!” he whispered incredulously. Then he looked up at Carlton, his face racked in agony. “You fucking are my dad!”

_____

 

Miss Emma shuffled about her small wood frame house like a rodent, scurrying from one of the hundreds of stacked cardboard liquor boxes and rifling though its contents, then looking up and about, and scampering to another on the other side of the room. She had a system — one only she knew — and filed and refiled newspapers and magazines according to that unknown criteria.

Miss Emma was barely five feet tall. In fact, to say she was five feet tall was more than likely stretching the truth, but that’s what she told anyone who asked.

“I’m fife feet toll,” she said in her toothless accent. More like four and a half feet in high heels.

Her head was wrapped in a colorful scarf she had found thrown away, and she had a mismatched wool scarf about her neck. She wore a black linen button down dress that dragged the floor, and over that was a black wool sweater. Her pudgy feet were crammed into a pair of tap shoes she bought at the Goodwill, and she wore knee socks — also black.

Twice before the Department of Social Services had sent Miss Emma’s case worker out to see her. Twice before the case worker warned her the city might have to condemn her rental home.

“There’s so many boxes of newspapers and magazines, Miss Emma! All it would take is an electrical spark and this place — and you — would be gone in minutes. You need to get someone to help you clean this place out and get rid of most of this!”

And Miss Emma would tap over to a box in the corner and rummage through its contents, grabbing an old National Geographic to deposit it into another stuffed box.

“Ain’t gonna get rid o’ nuffin!” she said. It wasn’t a defiant statement, but matter-of-fact.

And twice her case worker warned she was going to contact the fire department, or the City Inspection Department, and she might find herself out on the streets.

To that Miss Emma would mumble incoherently, and increase the speed and energy of her work.

The house was the lone structure on a lot otherwise vacant. The yard was similar to the house, strewn with cast-off items Miss Emma had dragged from somewhere. Her prize possession was a rusty grocery cart she used to collect bottles and aluminum cans with. Once full, she would push the cart a mile down the road and sell it’s contents to the Salvation Army Captain, who would give her $5, and then recycle the worthless bounty to the big dumpster in the parking lot. 

Miss Emma would use the money to buy pop and a newspaper and two magazines from the gas and convenience store that was along her route home. She would drink the pop through her mustached lips, and promptly file the newspaper and magazines when she got home. She had lived alone in that house for over twenty years, and far as her neighbors, or the police, or her case worker knew, had practiced the same daily routine.

Her possessions of necessity, other than the box-filed magazines and newspapers, were a hand-operated can opener — this kind with a spike blade you leverage around the edge of the can; and an old beat-up aluminum pan, plus a hot plate. It was getting to the point opening a can of beans was difficult for her to do, as her arthritis had deformed her fingers over the last few years. So she ate every other day — though to look at her squat physique, you would think otherwise.

In one corner of the bedroom was an old cotton-batting mattress with a striped cover design. The mattress was stained in various places, but she had found it discarded on the street years ago, and other than the urine and mildew smells, functioned just fine for her. She had no bed frame, and the mattress lay on the linoleum-covered floor. It was easy for her to get in the bed at night. Just fall into place. But getting up in the morning was a chore due to her Weeble-shaped body, and her age, which most people guessed was late-sixties or older.

She had no relatives anyone knew of. No one other than her case worker ever came to visit, although there had been a few preteens who thought it would be funny to spray paint the sun-faded clapboards on the outside of her house. 

“Mole Woman!” in bright red letters adorned two of the exterior walls. The kids would have done more, except a passing police cruiser slowed down and stopped that night, and the boys disappeared into the dark, laughing.

Miss Emma didn’t care. “Fust time de house have been painted thince I live here,” she told the officer.

So, until that fateful night, Miss Emma lived a life of comparative comfort and ease — doing and living just how she pleased.

_____

 

“Who the hell stepped in your apple pie?” Tamara asked John as he slammed his locker door closed. “And why are you here? You’re not on the schedule.”

“Got nowhere else to be,” he grumbled a reply. “I relieved Jessup.” 

He grabbed a textbook and sat at the end of the table where he and his co-workers normally ate their meals. Rifling through it’s pages, he closed it and buried his face in his hands.

Tamara walked over and sat at the table.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“No!”

“Sure?”

“It’s just that — goddam him!”

“What happened?”

“I met my father today.”

“Well that’s good. Father and son — you know …”

“… For the first time in my life.”

“Oh. That’s … that’s really different.”

“I know. And out-of-the-blue. I mean, if he was able to find me, you would think he’d have the decency to somehow ask me beforehand if I wanted to meet him.”

“You would think.”

“And I was so — so surprised — and mad at him! I coulda lost all control and beat the snot out of him!”

“But you didn’t, right?”

“I didn’t. We had lunch and talked. Well, I mainly listened. I wanted to know about my mom. I could care less about him.”

“You never knew your mom?”

“She died when I was a baby.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. And then this myopic, self-centered bastard-maker all of a sudden shows up!”

“What did he want?”

“Who knows? Maybe forgiveness. I don’t fucking know or care what he wanted.”

“What do you want?”

“I was fine not knowing anything about him. Now I can never un-know that he’s out there — him and his dog and his truck. I’d like to go back to the way it was — not knowing. I guess that sounds pretty harsh.”

“I can see why you feel that way. I mean, when my dad died I was a toddler, and I really never knew him — have no memories. Just photos mom had. And I found myself getting angry at him at those times growing up when I really needed him. Mothers and daughters don’t always get along well, and I hated my mom for getting remarried, then hated Dad for dying. Like he could have done anything about it.”

“Well, my dad had a choice. I’m sorry about your dad. Illness?”

“No. A freak accident. He was a toll booth operator on a main road north of Charlotte.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Some woman lost control of her car — and dad was supposed to already be off-duty. She slammed into his booth, and they were both killed.”

They were interrupted by the blaring of the station alarm, and the two hustled Into their gear and climbed into the ambulance.

House fire located at …” came the street coordinates of the emergency, along with “possible burn victim or victims” and other information. Tamara revved the engine and turned the lights and siren on as the garage door opened, and eased onto the road, then hit the accelerator.

John Farmer manned the radio mic for further information, and tried to concentrate on the moment as they raced down the streets — but his mind was on a toll booth north of Charlotte.

_____

When they arrived at the scene of the fire, Tamara stopped the ambulance in the middle of the road, far enough away from the two fire trucks that arrived shortly before. Police had cordoned off the street from both sides, and in the dark, red, blue, and white lights shot into the night, illuminating everything in stop-action.

As John and Tamara leaped from the cab and grabbed their kits, a man hovered over a short, plump figure on the lawn in front of the house, now an inferno. The firefighters hosed the flames from several directions, mainly to keep anything else from catching on fire. In fact, one hose was dedicated to washing down nearby limbs of trees, grass, and other potential fuel sources.

The man raised his arm and waved frantically to get their attention.

”Over here!” he shouted.

They ran toward the two on the lawn, gloving up quickly, then dropped to their knees at the body. Tamara immediately checked for signs of life.

“She’s alive,” Tamara said, “Check her airway, John!” and reached into her bag to grabbed an ambu bag.

John fished around the woman’s mouth. “Got her tongue.”

Tamara fit the air mask while John gently lifted the woman’s jaw into the mask.

“Grab the mask, John.” He placed his two hands around the mask to ensure a seal while Tamara slowly squeezed the plastic chamber, watching for the woman’s chest to rise.

The man stood and backed away, watching the rescue process.

“I got her. Go get the stretcher.”

There was no formality. No pleases and thank you involved in their exchange. She was the lead EMT, and he was the second. John ran back to the ambulance, opened the back, and rolled the stretcher unit out until the legs expanded to the ground.

“Officer! We need a hand!” Tamara called to a cop standing by. John rolled the stretcher parallel to the downed woman and collapsed the unit. John and the cop gently lifted the unconscious woman onto the stretcher while Tamara held the airbag in place, periodically squeezing the bag. She followed alongside as John and the officer rolled the stretcher to the back of the ambulance, and shoved it into the back area.

A fireman approached the ambulance and spoke quickly to John. 

“Her name is Emilia Simkova. People call her Miss Emma.”

John turned to the man standing by.

“Did you pull her out of the fire?”

“I did.”

John nodded his way. “Thanks.” He could hear a dog barking from the cab of an old pickup parked on the grass a distance from the now smoldering frame of the wood house.

“No problem.”

John ran to the front of the ambulance and squeezed in behind the wheel, adjusting the seat backwards. He leaned around and shouted to Tamara, who was beside the stretcher Miss Emma was on, slowly pumping the air bag.

“Ready?”

“Go for it!”

“Who was the guy?”

John hesitated. 

“My dad.”

_____

To be continued …

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