Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Luck Of The Road

“It feels like we've been on this highway forever,” Sam complained.

“We couldn't have found a better place for it,” Rick said.

Rick had his hands in his pockets and was kicking a small smooth rock back and forth along the edge of the asphalt. He hadn't looked up when Sam spoke. Sam knew irony when he heard it and didn't look at Rick either. He just didn't have the energy to respond. Both of them were overheated and disgusted. They were standing on the outskirts of a little town called Blythe at the eastern edge of California, but it looked like the middle of nowhere to Sam.

The desert wasn't far away and the Arizona border not much further, but they'd been stuck in this same spot all day, hatless under as hot a sun as he could imagine. With one hand he was trying to thumb a ride east while with the other hand he was wiping at his forehead over and over again. Beads of sweat reformed faster than he could shake his fingers dry.
The year was 1969. The hitch-hikers were in their early twenties. They looked a little scruffy, yet not much different from how they'd looked before they dropped out of college the year before. Still, they were conspicuous enough on the side of this dusty road. Sometimes they called themselves “freaks”, meaning it as an amusement. It was slightly less offensive and a little more accurate than “hippie”, a term invented by the news media to cover such a broad spectrum of human possibilities and eccentricities that it meant nothing at all. At any rate, both hitchhikers had had some trouble in the past with locals who thought they were from another planet. (In some parts of the country that year, it didn't take much deviation from the norm to end up branded inhuman. Thirty years later, it would seem as if the only people who wore their hair long were rock stars and those self-same rednecks who used to throw beer bottles out the car window—but the significance of that peculiar pairing is beyond the scope of this writing.)

Rick, whose shaggy brown hair was dull-colored, had a blazing red-brown beard which he kept cut short. He never shaved or shaped it, which made him look a little like a Neanderthal. There was a gentle confusion in his eyes, however—something resembling the abstracted look of a panda or the stoned gaze of a teddy bear—that suggested he was probably pretty tame.

Sam was stocky, considerably more bear-like in appearance than Rick, though certainly not a teddy bear. His nose was too sharp and so was his temperament. His moderately long hair, blond and curly at the ends, was carefully parted in the middle. It might have given his face a 1940’s look if it hadn't been for his beard, an unusually long goatee which seemed more to suggest beatniks than the full-faced beards of the hippies. To add to the confusion there was the shiny red-white-and-blue scarf he'd bought in Berkeley because it resembled an American flag, but wasn't. On one hand, freaks were not supposed to worry very much about what they looked like; paradoxically they were also supposed to “let it all hang out”, or, in the words of some song of the time, to “let their freak flags fly”. Thus Sam's appearance was a bit schizoid, consisting of an absolute disdain for what he thought of as fashion and a proud premeditated peacockery.

“Son of a bitch,” Sam said numbly, loosening the scarf. His vanity had just caved in. He pulled it off and put it in his backpack, noting that small bits of softened road tar were sticking to the canvas pack. He licked his lips and spat. The heat and dust were horrible. Hitchhiking was horrible.

Though Sam didn't see it, Rick was grinning. It was a rare sight; he was generally pretty stoic. He had, for instance, been listening to Sam gripe for a day and a half now without saying very much himself, though he wasn't having any better time of it than Sam. He could tolerate practically anything, he'd thought, including Sam's noisy bad humors about the discomforts of cheap travel, but now the heat was making him light-headed and Sam's complaints had become an amusing distraction for Rick. It gave him a sense of balance, and he liked keeping his balance as well as the next
man. He just didn't make as much noise about it.

“Damn!” Rick swore softly, his expression of amusement changing to a preoccupied frown. He had kicked his rock too hard and it had skittered sideways toward the road. Sam saw it coming, but it went between his feet and landed in the middle of the blacktop before he could even think of doing anything.

“Sorry,” Sam said.

“No problem,” Rick shrugged. “Lots of rocks.”

A few minutes later, it was Sam's turn to curse again. “I can't believe this!” He threw his arms up and let them fall to his sides. “I'm beginning to wonder if we'll ever get any further,” he said irritably.

“California's a nice 'n easy place mostly,” Rick sighed, “but sometimes it just won't turn loose.”

Sam grunted his agreement and lit a cigarette. He could have said more. He had wanted loose from California after only six weeks, but he'd been too embarrassed to just turn around and go home to Texas. He had already despaired of liking California when he injured his back in a ridiculous bicycle accident going down a steep San Francisco hill. He had fallen on his head and pulled nearly every muscle in his back. He was more seriously injured than he had first wanted to admit, and when he finally admitted it, he didn't want to go to a doctor, he just wanted to go home. He was sick and tired of California.

Rick, also a Texan, had lived in Berkeley for a couple of years and seemed to like it, yet he had suddenly announced that he was going, too. Sam wondered if Rick was tired of California, too, or just homesick for Texas. A few weeks ago he wouldn't have believed it, but now he understood how someone can get desperately homesick for a place they were sick of when they left there. Now here they were trying to get back to Texas the only way they could afford, and not having much luck. Cars had been passing them by all morning. When he'd thumbed his way west, catching rides had sometimes been slow, but nothing like this. Broiling on a dusty highway like this was intolerable.

“This is worse than Texas,” Sam said, “and I never even imagined anything worse than Texas.”

“We're almost in the desert here, you know,” Rick yawned. “You've never really dealt with a desert before, I guess. You must have caught good rides coming out here.”

“Well, maybe.” Sam took a short sip from an oversized canteen and spat it out. “This goddamn water was cold thirty minutes ago and now it tastes like it came out of a radiator! Let's go get something cool to drink.”

Rick glanced at him with sleepy eyes, then at the brightly-colored restaurant on the other side of the road. They'd been trotting in and out of Sambo's every hour or so all morning, going for coffee and ice water and, of course, the air-conditioning; it was hard to stick it out very long in the open sun. If anybody was that tough, it certainly wasn't Sam.

“What a ridiculous town to get stuck in, anyway!” Sam fumed.

“What a ridiculous name for a town,” Rick said amiably.

“That's true,” Sam snickered, suddenly sounding in a better humor. “It looks like the dark side of Middle Earth, doesn't it? There's hardly anything here but tourist provisions. If it weren't for these bright plastic gas stations and food joints, there wouldn't be any color here at all. Right behind the 'Food-Gas-Lodgings' sign, there ought to be one that says,

'Welcome to the Desolation of Blythe. Free sun strokes with every purchase.'“

“Well, I see you're in a better mood,” Rick said.

“Don't depend on it!” Sam laughed, wiping his wet forehead.

“Anyway, let's go see what the other tourists are eating.”

As they were going in the door at the restaurant Rick yawned
again and said, “If we don't catch a ride pretty soon, I think we'd better split
up. Sometimes it's just impossible for two people to catch a ride.”

Sam nodded. Rick was a more experienced hitch?hiker and was likely to be
right. Sam hated it, though.

They sat down at a booth and Rick put his feet up and closed his
eyes. When the waitress came, Sam ordered something to eat, but Rick just
shook his head and dozed. It was well past noon when they came out again
and the sun hit them hard. Sam put his hand in front of his face and

“Shit, getting out of the sun didn't make it better, it made it

Rick, suddenly and fully awakened by the hot air, jerked his head
toward the sky and squinted. “What the hell did you eat, anyway?” he asked

“Something that looked a lot better in the picture on the menu
than it did in real life. And then it still looked better than it tasted.”

“I actually like Sambo's food,” Rick said with a shrug.

“Oh.” Sam shrugged too and wondered if Rick was running out of money. He wasn't very flush himself, but now he felt bad that he hadn't offered to buy Rick something. He tried to catch Rick's eye to see if there was any hunger or resentment there. Rick didn't look very concerned about anything, except that he kept scratching himself. Then he remembered why Rick was so sleepy and grinned. The fleas.

When they'd gotten into town the previous night they'd searched all the closed service stations for the cleanest dirty rest room and that's where Rick had slept. The idea, of course, was to stay out of the cold. Sam, the less experienced hitchhiker, had been horrified at the notion of lying down anywhere that smelled so strongly of urine. Fortunately, he'd had a sleeping bag and had “volunteered” to sleep outside in the doorway since there was so little room on the rest room floor.

The temperature dropped into the 30's, and Sam shivered miserably. His back was hurting, too, and it seemed like it took forever to get to sleep. By the time morning came, he'd only had a couple of hours rest and he ached all over, but at least he had gotten some sleep. When Rick came out of the Ladies Room griping about flea bites and not getting any sleep at all, suddenly Sam didn't feel as bad. (It's reassuring, sometimes, no matter how cruel it might seem, to feel that you're not the last man on the totem pole, that someone has it worse than you do.)

“Fleas, huh?” Sam said, unable to contain a huge grin.

“Fuck you,” Rick said instantly, but without heat. He never held grudges against people who were merely more comfortable than he was. Walking back to the highway now, Rick kept scratching and Sam kept grinning.

“It could be worse.”

“How?” Rick said.

“Hell, I'm not sure. I'm just trying to distract you from those fleas.”

“I'm distracted enough, thank you,” Rick said.

A half hour later by the side of the road, the bottoms of their feet felt thoroughly burned and Sam's head was spinning with the heat.

“Shit, this is too much!” he said.

“Yeah, it is,” Rick agreed.

“What time did we get here last night, anyway?” Sam asked.

“About eight o' clock, I think.”

“Christ, that means we've been here over sixteen hours!”

“That's about right, I guess,” Rick frowned. Suddenly they both felt like idiots.

“It doesn't take long, does it?” Sam said, pointing to the hot asphalt.

“No,” Rick answered, looking fidgety.

“You're thinking that we ought to split up now, aren't you?”

Rick nodded. Sam nodded back. There wasn't much choice. He would miss Rick. Having company on the road had been pleasant, but being stuck like this wasn't. It would be worth anything to catch a ride out of there. They flipped a coin to see which of them would go first, and Rick won the toss.

“Well, see you in Austin,” Sam smiled.

“No doubt,” Rick said.

He wondered if he should shake Rick's hand or say something like “We'll meet again,” but they both knew they'd meet again and he didn't want to seem effusive. Rick never seemed very comfortable when people made too much of him, whether he was leaving or staying. Maybe he'd been too many places and parted company with too many traveling companions to worry about it. Sam shrugged his shoulders and smiled wistfully, then
picked up his backpack and moved away from the road.

He watched Rick from a distance. In less than 15 minutes, a small pink car with bright splotches of primer paint and bondo all over it stopped and Rick got in. The VW bug took off with a lurch, leaving a small poot of beige smoke behind it. Rick stuck his long arm out of the window and waved twice without looking back. Sam was glad to see him catch a ride. “Maybe my luck will change with Rick's,” he thought. But after another 90 minutes in the heat, he began to feel jealous instead. When an
eighteen-wheeler slowed down and pulled to the side of the road just beyond him, he was more relieved than he'd been in ages. As the driver took the backpack and stowed it in the back of the cab, Sam noticed the “No Riders” sign attached to the windshield. If the driver wasn't going to mention it, though, he wouldn't either.

“My name's Jake,” the driver said as Sam climbed in and closed the door. “Damn hot out there, ain't it?”

“It sure is,” Sam answered loudly. “I feel like I've been broiled!”

As the truck picked up speed, the engine noise and the wind rushing in through the windows made it necessary to shout.

“Yeah, I can imagine!” Jake hollered. “Where you going,


“Really? Austin's a great town! A trucker can always find a party and pussy in Austin!”

Sam smiled knowingly at Jake, though inwardly he grimaced.

He figured that now he was going to have to listen to a lot of self-centered sex talk. He'd had the experience before and thought it odd, how many of the men he'd met on the road had felt compelled to talk about women hefore they would talk about anything else. It was as if they didn't really trust one another until they'd made certain of one another's heterosexual constitution. Just as he was preparing to grin and bear it, the driver looked like he was remembering something and changed the subject.

“You know, the last time I drove through Austin, I picked up an old man who was hitch-hiking on a day just about as hot as this. He was standing in the middle of nowhere, somewhere out toward Llano; cars were whizzing by him like he was nothin' but a signpost. I've passed up some oddball hitch-hikers in my life, too, but you know what?” Jake paused and leaned a little toward him as if he might take a guess. Sam shrugged.

Jake slapped his leg and boomed, “That old man only had one leg!”

Sam smiled politely. He wasn't sure just how decent it was to laugh at an old one-legged man stranded on the side of the road. Jake had no qualms at all, though; he thought it was hilarious. Sam began to think that the guy might be a little weird.

“He'd been standing out there for hours with the asphalt burning the shit out of his one foot. Most men would've been hopping from one foot to the other for relief, but he didn't have any choice in the matter! He'd tried sitting down for a while, he said, but that just burned his ass! And there wasn't no shade anywhere unless he walked so far from the road that he'd never catch a ride!”

“I guess that guy really appreciated seeing you then.”

"Shit!" Jake spat out the window and then grinned. “I might as well've tried making friends with a rattlesnake. That old man was the most goddamn bad-tempered hitchhiker I ever met! You couldna made him madder if you'd pissed in his hat! Most guys you pick up on the road try to get along and not be a bother, but this old fart was mad at the world. He was mad because a thousand cars had gone past him that afternoon and didn't give a shit about a poor old cripple. And he was mad because he'd lost the leg in the first place!”

“That's quite a list,” Sam thought.

“And in particular,” Jake snickered, “he was mad 'cause he'd gone to Austin only meaning to visit his niece for a couple of days but he got pneumonia and had to spend two whole weeks in the hospital! Then, when he got out, the niece was out of town and he didn't have no money and the only way he could get back to Houston—which the hardheaded bastard was absolutely determined to do—was to stand out there on the side of the goddamn road like a fuckin' sideshow attraction!”

“Sounds like an awful lot of bad luck for one old man,” Sam said. He was thinking, “This guy talks a mile a minute.”

“Maybe,” Jake said, “but I kinda thought he'd made his own bad luck with that fuckin' bad attitude he had. Hell, I don't know, I guess he just kinda wore out my patience with his bitching and grumping all the way to Houston. By the time we got there, I'd heard his goddamn life story, including shit about everybody who ever owed him money and didn't pay and everybody who'd ever refused him a favor. I was so desperate to get rid of him that when he touched me for some money for the bus, I gave him my last couple of bucks just so I wouldn't end up having to drive his miserable old ass to his doorstep.”

“Sounds like you got pretty sick of him,” Sam said.

“You're goddamn right I did,” Jake said. “I guess he was about the least entertaining rider I ever picked up in my life. Yeah, I just about hated that guy by the time I got rid of him.”

They drove on for a few more miles while Jake fiddled with the radio dial. The wind rushing in the windows was hot, but it was better than standing still in the sun. At least he was going somewhere. Apparently Jake couldn't find anything he liked on the radio, so he drove along talking amiably at the top of his lungs about everything that occurred to him, and a lot of stuff seemed to occur to him. He finally realized that the trucker wasn't weird, he was wired.

“He must be on speed,” he thought, but as long as nothing went wrong, he didn't really care. When things did go wrong, they did it so suddenly that Sam never quite knew what had happened.

“Shit, there's a cop coming after me!” Jake said.

Jake squirmed around in his seat and began talking even faster, babbling something incoherent about company policy. Sam could guess what it was about and felt irritated. He wanted to tell him, “Christ, if you weren't supposed to pick me up, then what'd you do it for?!”, but then he pictured himself burning to a crisp back there in the desolation of Blythe and realized what an immense favor Jake had done him. It would be stupid to holler at the guy. All the while Jake was talking, he was slowing down and pulling to the side of the road, the cop right behind him. As he came to a stop, Jake's voice got a little clearer and he managed to finish his jumble of sentences with a single intelligible remark.

“So tell him you're a bobtail driver, OK?”

Sam's mouth dropped open to say something, but Jake had already jumped down from the cab and walked back to talk to the cop.

“Christ God,” muttered Sam. Sam, the bookworm. Sam, who couldn't tell a Dodge truck from a Chevy truck unless he was close enough to read the letters on the emblem. “What the hell's a bobtail driver?”

Through the mirror on the driver's side, he could see Jake talking rapidly and showing a pile of papers to the policeman. He turned around and lit a cigarette. Maybe if he just ignored the situation, the cop would give up and go away. The next thing he knew the cop had climbed up onto the cab on the driver's side and leaned in. He looked around the cab appraisingly, as if he already owned it, then grinned at Sam as if he might own him too in another minute.

“This old boy says you're a bobtail driver. Izzat right?” he said.

He sounded as if he thought it was the funniest thing in the world. “Come
on, lemme see your license.”

Sam found the situation nerve-wracking, and the evil leer on the cop's face wasn't helping. “How the hell did I get in the middle of this anyway?!” he wondered. “I have no reason to lie to the cop, but I don't want to fuck Jake over, either. Crap!” He got out his Texas driver's license and slowly handed it over.

“Listen, officer—I don't know why you've stopped this guy, but I'm just a rider. I don't even know what a “bobtail” is.”

If possible, the cop grinned wider than before. Apparently, this was splendid news. “Yeah. Yeah, that's about right,” he laughed, then jumped down from the cab and walked away, still holding Sam's license.

Sam's face burned. He felt idiotic. For all he knew, a bobtail driver might be somebody that didn't even drive. He might even have been willing to lie about it, if only he'd known what lie to tell! He'd never felt more awful about telling the truth in his life, or more compelled either. For a heartbeat, perhaps, it had been a dilemma—but he was too far from home, and he hadn't met a cop yet who liked his looks.

“I just can't afford the hassle,” he told himself anxiously,” piling one good excuse on top of another until he'd covered every angle. No matter what he told himself, though, he still felt like a moronic shit.

“Goddamn it,” Sam muttered, “why do these guys always have to try to be so goddamn intimidating? They've got the power, what else do they want?”

Jake came back and slowly got in the truck, looking dejected and beaten. He leaned his head down for a moment, then started the truck. The cop pulled out onto the highway in front of him and waved his arm. Jake followed him.

“You were a lot of damn help,” Jake finally said.

“I guess so,” Sam answered, feeling horribly guilty. “But I don't even know what a bobtail is, how was I gonna lie about it?”

“Shit,” Jake said, “everybody knows what a bobtail is!” But he seemed to be talking to himself now. “I'm in so much deep shit now that I don't know what I'm going to do. The company's gonna grab me by one nut and this fuckin' cop by the other one.” He leaned his head forward, smacked it against the steering wheel, and said, “Jesus God, I am just fucked, fucked, fucked!”

After that, Jake brooded silently. Sam didn't dare say anything, for fear he'd start banging his head again. Jake was weird indeed. Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea, after all, Sam thought. Somebody needed to take this guy off the road.

The wait at the station was interminable, though all they did was leave him alone to worry about what would happen. Eventually he saw Jake going down the hallway with his head down, muttering to himself and looking lost. He got a drink from the water fountain, nodded at the cop who'd brought them in, then turned and walked straight out the door. A minute later Sam could hear the big truck start up and drive away. It was mystifying, but what did he care if they turned Jake loose? So long,
sayonara, good luck, it's my turn next!

He expected that they'd eventually play some interminable game of twenty questions with him, but what they were doing was digging around trying to find some esperado's description in their files that would fit him. It seemed to Sam as if it was taking forever.

“Cops love to make you wait,” he grumbled.

Apparently he didn't look like any criminal of currency, for they only questioned him briefly, then told him he could go. They took him to the front door and nodded their heads down the road. He'd lost his sense of direction when the truck had left the main road, but the cops didn't look like they cared to be asked. He shouldered his backpack and started walking, unsure whether this was the way back to the highway or not.

“I wouldn't put it past them,” he thought miserably.

“Just keep on moving,” one of them said sternly.

“There's an original line,” Sam thought. He had to make an
effort not to laugh.

As he passed a road sign, he turned and looked back at the station. The cops were still standing around watching him, smiling as if they knew something he didn't. He nodded grimly to himself, considering it highly probable. He'd played these games before. He glanced at the city limits sign behind him, then looked again. He wanted to laugh, but he didn't have the heart. The sign said everything:


“Mother of God,” he muttered.

Surely that wasn't what had the cops going, though; it didn't make sense that they'd be laughing at the name of their own town. As soon as he got out of sight of the police station, he was, without knowing it, in another jurisdiction, another town even smaller than their own. He hadn't been away from the Surprise police more than ten minutes when a squad car of a different color pulled over to check him out. A very young and very overweight cop got out and grinned at him, hardly able to contain his amusement. Sam recognized what these sniggering cops were up to, but
knew better than to show it. While the cop sat in his squad car and talked on the radio, Sam fidgeted, thinking that he'd talked to the wrong end of more cops on this trip than he had during his entire life as a motorist. He'd decided that cops just didn't like people moving around much, at least not without four wheels. It seemed to him that the police wanted everyone to just sit home watching television; it would make their jobs so much easier.

The young cop got out of his car and walked back over to the hitchhiker. He tapped the backpack with his foot and said, “You wanna dump that shit out?”

“Sure, Sam said, “I've been waiting all my life to do it.” No, he didn’t actually say that. He just wanted to.

It was hardly the first time that his stuff had been searched.

While the Arizona cop leaned down and poked his billy club around slowly in the jumble of clothing, careful not to touch anything with his hands, Sam smiled, reminded suddenly of a cop back in Bakersfield. “This guy could be his nephew,” he thought. When he'd hitchhiked west his first impression had been that California cops were polite, no matter what kind of scum they thought you were. But up until Bakersfield, he'd only been stopped by the clean-cut men of the California Highway Patrol. In Bakersfield he and Rick and some other hitchhikers had piled up by accident near an overpass on the outskirts of town. Someone brought up the subject of small-town cops and Rick had said this looked like the kind of place where they liked to catch you.

A skinny young girl with long blonde hair laughed and said, “Imagine John Wayne with plenty of belly and billy club—and proud as punch of both!” The girl seemed far too young to know so much, but she didn't think so.

“Isn't Merle Haggard from around here?” a guy with a blonde surfer cut asked her. The others assumed he was her boyfriend.

“That's right!” she said. “I grew up around here and I know these guys better than I care to think. They're all weird and self-righteous! And the cops,” she giggled, “they wear so much aftershave that you can smell them from further away than a college sorority girl!”

When the cop from Bakersfield arrived a few minutes later, Sam sniffed aftershave at twenty paces and frowned, wondering at the girl's accuracy. Rick shrugged. A chunky middle-aged cop with a bad complexion and red hair that looked like it'd been dipped in a french-fry vat got out of his police car, hitched up his pants awkwardly and stared at them.

When he took off his dark glasses, Sam whispered to Rick, “He must be the ugliest man I've ever seen—doesn't seem much like California.”

“It is,” Rick said.

“Watch this,” Sam said, facing away from the cop and grinning at Rick. “He'll be on my backpack like stink on shit.”

He was right. He'd wished several times already during this trip that he hadn't brought the large backpack because so few cops could resist the idea that it must be filled with contraband. The worst thing it contained, however, was his dirty clothes, sealed tightly in a plastic bag. He had begun to suspect that the cops just liked to mess up his stuff, not to mention his head. The only thing different about this cop was that he was too fat to bend down to inspect it. Sam had started unloading it on the ground, but the cop objected loudly.

“No—shit, no!—put it up here on the trunk!”

Sam narrowed his eyes and said, “Well, you know, this metal frame might scratch—”

“That doesn't matter. Just put the damn thing up here!”

Sam put it on the trunk, being careful despite the cop's disclaimer. He remembered the polite young California patrolmen and realized that this was a different kind of beast—a pushy middle-aged local boy with manners learned at home, not at any police academy. He didn't like transients and didn't have any qualms about showing it. Fortunately, the cop quickly got bored; he quit poking through the pack when it was still half-full.

“Pack that shit up and get it off my goddamn car,” the cop said,

not even looking at the hitch?hikers. He slipped his dark glasses back on and faced them, his hands splayed lazily on his hips. “You know, there's a saying in some towns I've heard of. You mighta heard it too. It says, 'Nigger, don't let the sun set on you here.' All you young longhair bastards better just assume you're that nigger.”

It was deathly quiet for several moments after that. None of the young people dared to look at one another, though they badly needed to.

Later somebody said glumly, “Amerika with a k. “Love it or leave it.”

“Suck its red-white-and-blue dick or leave it, you mean!” the girl said angrily. She seemed to have tears in her eyes. “That's what the bastards really mean!” she added, flinging her small backpack on the ground and marching off down the concrete embankment. She stumbled slightly at first, then, picking up speed as she neared the bottom, skidded on her heels and lost control. When she reached level ground, she was moving fast. She pitched forward and scuffed her hands on the dirt, caught her balance just enough to turn her behind toward the ground, and sat down abruptly. Like some cats he knew when they'd missed their footing, she crossed her arms
calmly and continued to sit as if it'd all been planned. As if she weren't

“I sort of thought she was tougher than that,” Rick said, glancing at her boyfriend.

The boy glanced at Rick, obviously embarrassed. “Yeah, well, she sure likes to think so. She's the best piece of ass I've ever had, though.”

He grinned at the others, knowing they'd understand, then slid down the embankment, his soft moccasins gliding with the grace and balance of a surfer, and sat down beside her.

“If I wondered about such things,” Rick frowned, “I'd kinda wonder how those two ended up together.”

Sam nodded, waving his hand as if to dismiss them both. He agreed, but there was nothing he could do about it and he was still annoyed at the cop.

“You know, there could have been a load of guns or dope in my pack, but that lazy bastard knew good and well there was nothing there before he even started. He just wanted to make us keep moving.”

“That's all any of them ever want,” Rick laughed. “Don't you know that yet?” Sam nodded again, too angry to say anything further.

“Actually,” Rick grinned, “it's a pretty good thing we had the distraction of your innocent old backpack. I do, after all, have a few joints in my pocket.”

Sam tried to grin back, though actually the information made him feel a little squeamish. He'd forgotten entirely about Rick's stash. He had a sudden flash of spending the rest of the night in some Bakersfield jail, not knowing if he'd ever get out.

Back to the present—when the young Arizona cop finally finished with the backpack, he tossed it on the ground, put his dark glasses back on, and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

“Well, keep movin', boy,” he said. Sam watched him drive away as if he had somewhere to go.

“The silly shit isn't much older than me,” Sam thought irritably.

What was this “boy” shit? He knew that the police were there “to serve and to protect”, but it seemed to him as if their major interest was in protecting everyone else from him.

“But what the hell did I do?” he wondered bitterly.

In the distance, he saw a pickup truck coming. He put out his thumb, eager to get moving. As the truck passed, an empty beer can sailed

Post Options Labout of the window, followed by a brawling voice, “Hey, hippie?shit!”

“I'll be amused by this later in life,” he thought.

He thought about the final scene in “Easy Rider”, gritted his teeth, and wished he didn't go to movies. He considered hiding in the high grass until morning, but if he did that, one set or another of these local cops was bound to find him and start the whole thing over again. There wasn't any choice but to keep on going, and he only had one way to go. He put out his thumb again, feeling uptight every time he saw anything resembling a pickup truck on the horizon. He was scared, tired, pissed off, and shit out of luck.

Just as dark was coming on, a friendly middle-aged businessman picked him up and gave him a ride into Phoenix. The minute he hit the pavement, a young couple stopped for him and offered him a place to crash.

That night he slept in a bed, and took a long overdue shower. The next morning, they ferried him to the outskirts of town and wished him good luck. As they drove away, smiling and waving, he thought, “At least everybody you meet on the road isn't crazy.”

But the very next ride, an old man picked him up who talked incessantly and turned off of the main highway without mentioning it.

Before Sam caught on to what had happened, he was hopelessly lost. The old man didn't seem to know where they were either. He had to do some fast talking just to get the old man to stop, and then he found himself stranded under a cloverleaf of overpasses so complex that he doubted whether anybody on it knew where they were or where they were going. It didn't matter much; he was under the damned cloverleaf, with no easy or legal access to the traffic. There was plenty of noise and activity overhead, but for all practical purposes it was the middle of nowhere.

When he found his road again, he caught a ride from a farmer who only went five miles before he had to turn off. Sam wondered why the guy had even bothered, but figured there was plenty of traffic and he wouldn't have much trouble catching a ride. After traffic whizzed by him for an hour, he realized he'd been wrong. It was desolate and hot, not a stick of shade anywhere. It was worse than Blythe, and Blythe had been his limit. He started talking to himself.

“Goddamn it, I can feel the goddamn heat through the bottoms of my goddamn shoes! I hate this!” Thinking about the one-legged man, he wondered, “Since I've got two legs, do I get to be twice as mad or half?”

Another half hour went by and he felt he was getting delirious. He had a canteen of water with him; he was confident that he wouldn't die, but the water was sickeningly hot. When the shiny white Cadillac with the California license plates began slowing down, he could hardly believe his luck. He glanced in and caught a vague impression of a handsome, dark-haired cowboy with broad shoulders, wearing a fancy hat and dark
wraparound sunglasses.

“Toss that in the back and jump in,” the cowboy said. Sam gently eased his backpack onto the floorboard, but apparently took too long.

“Come on, buddy, get in!” the cowboy said. “It's mighty hot out there. You lettin' the cool stuff out!”

He nodded and smiled at the driver appreciatively, then slid delicately across the blue velour seat and closed the door as quickly as he could. The guy behind the wheel must consider himself a very sharp dresser, Sam thought; everything he had was new and crisp and creased.

He was wearing what appeared to be a very expensive hat, a bolo tie with bright chunks of irregularly-shaped turquoise, and a well-tailored suede jacket. Then Sam caught sight of the cowboy's faded old pants and smiled to himself. He wondered why cowboys were always getting that dressed up and then just wearing their jeans with it. It was as if they always had one foot placed tentatively in clean-cut, middle-class middle-America and the other planted stubbornly in some mudhole of the old west.

The hitch-hiker noticed all of this at a glance, but what he noticed most was the air-conditioning. The AC was turned up full blast. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

“Thanks,” Sam sighed. “I really needed this ride!”

“Yeah, boy, it must be pretty bad out there,” the driver drawled.

The cowboy was slumped so low and lazily in the car seat that it looked like he'd been glued there or born there, as if he and his white Cadillac were one machine or beast. The words he'd spoken had been friendly enough, but then he'd shrugged his right shoulder as if it made no never?mind to him and pressed down hard on the accelerator. Suddenly they were flying down the highway. At 80, Sam looked at the speedometer and hoped that was it, but it wasn't. The cowboy kept the pedal to the metal.

The hitchhiker felt a little nervous, but couldn't see any point in worrying
about it since the driver's aim seemed rock?steady. It was good enough that he'd gotten out of that murderous sun! God, the car felt good! He didn't realize it, but he'd hardly begun to feel the full effects of heat exhaustion. He was far more faint and light-headed than he knew. The cowboy didn't seem disposed to talk much after those first few comments and that suited Sam, too; he didn't much feel like he could
keep up a conversation. In fact, he was starting to nod. Zooming down the highway like that was hypnotic, and conducive to sleep. He couldn't keep his eyes open much longer. Still, he didn't think it would be very polite to just fall dead asleep. He glanced at the driver, meaning to use his last ounce of strength to say something appreciative and friendly, and that's when he saw that the guy had his fly open and his hand in his pants. Sam jerked his head back and stared straight ahead. He studied the oncoming rush of white lines and wondered if he could just pretend that he hadn't seen anything. Son of a bitch!

Well, but he had seen something. His mind spun crazily, like a narrow tire in a hip-deep mudhole, trying to come up with something that would minimize or reinterpret what he'd seen, but he couldn't get traction.

Speaking of traction, the cowboy was still at it. It was real, even if it didn't make sense. “Maybe he's sick,” Sam thought. He shook his head and wondered why the hell that notion was supposed to make him feel better about being trapped in a car with a masturbating lunatic! “Listen, God, I don't think I have the energy to deal with this shit.” He realized his prayer wasn't very respectful, but then he wasn't usually very religious.

He'd read in an underground comic book somewhere that there are no atheists in foxholes and now he knew it was true. He was under pressure and breaking fast.

“Maybe he's just scratching himself,” he thought a few moments later. The cowboy was up to more than that, however. Out of the corner of his eye Sam could see what he didn't want to see; the bastard had taken it out of those tight-fitting jeans and was playing with it.

“Dear God,” Sam thought wearily. His eyes kept trying to close. If the cowboy's intent was to freak out the freak, he'd done a good job. Sam was freaked. Heat exhaustion and panic were producing a hallucinogenic state of mind completely inappropriate to his situation, and he knew it. Thoughts that would ordinarily not have occurred to him passed through his mind without censor or censure. In effect, his brain had put out a sign: “You can make me stay awake, but you can't make me make sense.”

“Don't do this to me! Help me!” Sam pled, arguing with his own mind, then froze—he was horrified that he might have said it out loud. Lord knows what the masturbating cowboy would think he meant by that!

His scrambled brain made a suggestion: “You could just think of this as a chance to experience something new. You've had women, drugs, rock and roll and alcohol, you've had mild intellectual perversions out the ass. Maybe this is your chance to try something new? What the hell, no one will know unless you tell 'em! You're in the middle of nowhere—go ahead, get weird if you want to! If he makes you a proposition, just lean on over there and—”

“Whoa, Jack! Christ!”

Sam was a hedonist from way back, a voyeur, a backseat frontseat on-the-floor in-the-closet in the gutter libertine, an egalitarian willing to get naked with women of all persuasions whenever and wherever he could. He was a free spirit, a freethinker, a pro-abortionist, and all kinds of uninhibited progressive self-serving claptrap, possibly including a goddamn Johnson democrat (if his friends only knew!), but he wasn't any cocksucker, and this was too damn much! Yes sir, this had to stop. No matter how irresponsible a state his brain was in, there were some things that a good ole hippie boy from Texas still wouldn't do, not even in 1969. He'd just figured out one goddamned important one.

He looked closely at the cowboy's face. He'd gathered a different impression when he'd first gotten into the car; on closer inspection now, the guy's face looked older and defaced by dissolution.

“Christ, this old boy looks rough,” he thought.

He wanted to do something—spit in the guy's face or scream bloody murder or something, for the love of Christ!—but somehow the big Cadillac seemed a lot smaller than it had at first. He was beginning to feel claustrophobic for the first time in his life. Even though the bastard must be pretty well distracted by the business at hand, Sam presumed that the guy hadn't exactly forgotten him. Who else was this stupid show for? He tried to think of some surprise he could spring, but nothing occurred to him short of bringing up his foot and kicking the goat-fucker's face in!

“Sure, that's a great move,” he thought. “Wreck the car and kill the both of us.”

Besides, he was worried about that bulging map compartment over there in the lower part of the driver's door; maybe this peckerhead had a rod of a different kind in there. “Watching a little lettuce-whackin' won't kill me, I guess,” he thought morosely, “but a gun might do the trick.”

Suddenly his renegade brain began to argue. “Look, fool, you're just intimidated! This fruitcake can't shoot you while he's playing with his wang dang doodle! He needs one hand to drive, you know.”

“Yeah, that's what you think. But I think this guy is loony-tunes. He might rather turn loose of the steering wheel than of his sausage, you know? Where would we be then?”

“Oh, don't be such a candyass.”

“Yeah, sure—now I'm a candyass for not wanting to jump out of a Cadillac going 90 miles an hour.”

He checked the cowboy's movements in his peripheral vision and saw a bit more than he'd intended. “God, this twinkie does have a big instrument, doesn't he?” Sam was from Texas; he was used to cowboys who, other than a few idiot “Yeh-Haw!s" in the middle of the night were otherwise the most conservative creatures on the face of the earth. This tough-looking fruitloop dressed up like a cowboy was spoiling Sam's sense of balance worse than anything he'd ever encountered.

“Silly bastard,” Sam thought with disgust. Every time Sam got up the nerve to glance at him again, the idiot was doing some new trick with it. Ugh! Never saw a cowboy do that! He wanted to say something cutting,

but the most he could think of was, “Do you have to do that?” and all the guy would have to say was, “Yeah!” and that'd be the end of that. The cowboy started to hum along with a song on the radio and Sam decided to keep his trap shut.

For some reason the phrase, “Leave that alone, you don't know where it's been!” came to his mind unbidden, drifting to him out of childhood memories. His mother or aunt used to say it about money, he wasn't sure which. In any case, it seemed to fit the hysterical humor he was in and he had to stifle a snort of laughter. It was sneaking up on him faster than a speeding Cadillac, and was threatening to turn into an absolute howl. He knew he'd better suppress it even if it choked him. He quickly turned his face toward the window and pretended to clear his throat. When some guy
is humming “Red River Valley” and playing rhythm guitar with his toodle-oo while driving 90 miles an hour with demon-accuracy, you don't want to offend him.

He stole another glance at the cowboy's face. He had removed his hat and sunglasses, and Sam saw now that his dark hair was receding and very thin on top. He couldn't help feeling a sense of relief that the guy didn't look particularly strong. He was just a middle-aged phony-looking dissolute thing pretending to be a cowboy. If there was really no way around it, Sam figured he could live with hitting him. Maybe it ought to have been interesting, but it wasn't—it was exasperating and boring. He
was just too damn tired to appreciate the oddity of it. He felt like a sullen
child who'd stayed up past midnight. If he didn't lay his head against the passenger window right now and fall dead asleep, he'd...

Sam woke up and almost immediately knew where he was. He felt better, but he still felt awful. He had no idea how long he'd slept. The Cadillac was still moving fast down a straight highway and he looked for a road sign to make sure they were still on the right road. When he saw that they were, there was nothing left to do but turn and face things, though it took a lot of effort to make himself do it. The cowboy was throwing a wad of Kleenex into the back seat and stuffing his salami back in his pants.

Unless the cowboy was a truly marathon masturbator, Sam figured, he hadn't slept very long at all.

“Well, maybe this won't be so bad, after all,” Sam thought

hopefully. The guy might just be a showoff who had now done his duty. He didn't really believe it, but he was trying not to expect the worst. Looking on the bright side wasn't his forte, but someone he'd met on the road had told him that that was the best way to avoid bad luck. She'd talked a lot about “karma”, and Sam had laughed at the mystical-sounding word. He couldn't help thinking about her nostalgically just now.

When he first got to California, he had caught a ride with a gentle young couple named Flowers and Charlie Showers. They were traveling the country in an old VW bus painted with the wildest psychedelic designs he'd ever seen. Woven through the wild design was the word, LOVE, over and over again. They were the most unrealistic people he'd ever met, but still the nicest. They talked about picking up hitchhikers no matter where they found them or what they looked like, or whether it was day or night, or—you get the picture. Sam had smiled and nodded, realizing that though he was the beneficiary of their philosophy and shouldn't complain, he wouldn't be able
to keep quiet.

“But surely you have some sort of criteria?” he asked. Flowers took her granny glasses off and rubbed her nose, shook her head vigorously and grinned in his direction as if she couldn't quite tell where he was.

“No, none,” she said happily.

“But what if something goes wrong, what if something bad does happen?” Sam had smiled.

“Well, that's just the luck of the road, isn't it?” she said lightly, shoving her glasses firmly back on her nose. Complaining about it won't change anything.”

“You have to keep going,” Charlie shouted at him over the noise of the VW motor.” “You have to keep faith with the world, you know.”

“That's right,” Flowers said. “If you expect bad things to happen, they probably will.”

Bad things indeed. He had thought about Flowers when he fell off the bicycle in San Francisco. If he'd been inclined to believe in such things, he'd have known that his karma had caught up with him then. If it hadn't hurt so much, he might even have thought it was funny. Surely karma was just an odd notion that—. But suddenly Sam remembered that he was in the Cadillac with this guy trying to make pudding in his lap. Well, there wasn't any choice here but to keep going, was there? He looked at the demented cowboy and sighed.

“If this is karma, I've certainly conjured up the very devil of a bad incarnation!”

Thinking about it was tiring, though, and his eyes were getting heavy.

His nap hadn't done him much good, after all. He wanted to get out, but still couldn't figure out any way to jump out of a speeding car, so he just got as close as he could to the window and leaned his fevered head on his arm. Despite everything Sam smiled, remembering Flowers and Charlie Showers; he hoped they were somewhere safe. He wondered if their karma merely enabled them to handle stuff like this or if it was gracious enough to protect them from ever having to find out. He nodded off to sleep again, hoping for the best.

Later—again he didn't know how much later, though the sun was approximately in the same place—Sam woke up and found the cowboy happily talking about his dick and massaging it through his tight blue jeans. Before Sam could yawn or clear the sleep from his eyes, the vulgar toad had whipped it out again!

“Keep faith with the world, my ass,” Sam thought furiously. Just on the edge of his outrage, he could hear the cowboy crooning along with the radio again. Sam didn't know the song, though he recognized Merle Haggard's voice.

“Another criminal cowboy,” he thought.

“The head of my dick is so thick,” the cowboy said.

“That's not all that's thick,” Sam thought.

“The girls really like it, they can't get enough of it.”

“I'm glad to hear it's the girls he wants to impress, but if that's really true,
then why the fuck is he showing it to me?!”

“I call it my vulva-popper,” the cowboy said with a snicker.

“Volvo popper?” Sam thought sleepily. “What sort of demented—?”

Then he got it, and grimaced.

His mind wasn't functioning. These dismal catnaps under stress weren't helping. Why had things gone so wrong? Was this really that goddamn California karma? Was it going to follow him all the way to Texas?

“You bet,” his tired brain said flippantly. “Hell, maybe that's Cowboy Yogi Karma himself over there with his Yankee Doodle in his hand. Maybe you'll reach a higher plane together and drive straight through to Austin holding hands and hollering out the window, 'Ya?hoo, we're Cadillac cowboy faggots!'“

“Jesus save me, be sensible,” Sam told himself. He cleared his throat and lit a cigarette. He liked the idea that a cop might pull them over for speeding, but he didn't much expect it. His luck didn't seem to be running that way. He watched the road carefully, nonetheless. “Hell. First I can't go anywhere without them swarming over me, and now there's not a piss-ant one of them in sight!” It figured.

He tried to recall the exact position of his backpack. When he got a chance to escape, he wanted to be ready. “Escape” was the only word for it; even if the cowboy wasn't queer, anybody who was that much in love with the head of his dick had to be deranged and dangerous. Sam glanced again at the bulging map compartment on the cowboy's door. Did the good old boy have a good old cowboy gun in it or not? Or maybe one under the seat? Maybe there wasn't one at all.

“Goddamn it, I hate mysteries, I've always hated mysteries, I don't like surprises of any kind!”

The longer he rode in the Cadillac, the more his middleclass breeding took over. He longed for “normality” the way mothers yearn for children lost in snow storms. He was tired and freaked out. All he wanted was to get out. If he'd ever been more uptight in his life, he couldn't remember it.

All the while the driver kept talking, and when Sam had to look at him again
he did it with as much disdain and disinterest as he could plaster on his face.

Every so often he'd nod or shake his head in response to the cowboy's talk, but mostly he steeled himself and gave no visible reaction.

“Yes sir,” the cowboy was saying, “this dick has had some mighty good pussy, and that pussy was glad to get it too. They really jump when this big ole hog gooses 'em. I can poke 'em in places they didn't know they had!”

Sam glanced at the guy's eyes. “Crazy as a rat,” he thought.

“Didja ever fuck a black girl, buddy?” the cowboy asked with a giggle. “I love that dark meat! Those bitches, they really go crazy, you know?”

Sam leaned his forehead against the window and talked to the God he didn't believe in: “Letting him wave his flag around is one thing, Lord, but you don't have to let him put peaches and cream on it!”

He could hardly tell now if the cowboy was talking to him or to himself or directly to his penis. It was all very confused, but it was clear the guy thought the thing between his legs was his best friend. Sam still felt an awful sense of claustrophobia, yet he couldn't help being curious how the idiot had developed such a gross fixation. It was a regular horse-cock, no doubt about that, yet the size of the cowboy's pride seemed even more abnormal than that of his member. Sam looked again at the cowboy's face and thought he could imagine him as “one of the guys” who watched football with his buddies and laughed as loudly as anyone at the homos on
the talk shows. Yet surely his buddies had tired long ago of his braggadocio. Maybe he had to come out on the road like this just to have an audience.

Perhaps, Sam conjectured, this human donkey might have been more comfortable in some lost backwater of Africa, someplace where priapic hugeness and fecundity were still insensibly confused. Someplace where the natives wouldn't be judgmental about a man so in love with his love muscle that he couldn't stop waving it around. Maybe some native artisan would trot out a beautiful dutiful daughter for him, and carve their copulations in wood—the bedazzled cocky cowboy looking happier than a comic Gladstone Gander!—thus preserving for future tribal consideration something truly amazing: a man using a woman to make love to his own penis.

Just now, however, the cowboy was performing another kind of rite, doing something energetic with his thumb. There was another one of those moronic Merle Haggard song on the radio about the moral superiority of mumble-mouthed cowboys; maybe he was playing along. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the cowboy was certainly keeping rhythm.

Dee dee dee, dew, dew, dew...

“Horseshit!” Sam thought, half-tempted to giggle. “This is an absolutely ridiculous thing to watch! I'll never be able to touch myself again. What's he think he's doing, anyway, getting it in condition for the Olympics?”

There was a rest stop on the side of the road up ahead, and Sam looked at the people in the cars and trucks longingly; there was normality, and here he was. He felt the Cadillac slowing down and his heart began to beat faster and faster. The cowboy was pulling off the highway and into the rest stop!

“Salvation!” Sam thought, and tensed himself for action.

There was a little distance between the Cadillac and the other vehicles, but otherwise they sat in the middle of the vacationers with all engines running. The Cadillac vibrated smoothly, the cowboy jerked proficiently, Sam was having a conniption fit. On the brink of freedom, he wondered more than ever about the presumed gun. He was from Texas, after all. In Texas you could trust a cowboy to do a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, but you could absolutely depend on it that he had a gun somewhere. “Cowboys always have guns,” Sam sighed, “even the sensible ones.”

Right now, though, he was primarily concerned that if he jumped out while the engine was running, the cowboy might panic and drive away before Sam could get his pack out of the back seat. If he could just wait another minute or two, maybe the guy would get out to stretch his legs. He'd already stretched every other damn thing, from his wang to Sam's credulity. The seconds ticked by; Sam measured every minute step it would take to jump out and get his pack. He was so busy with his scheme that he
had only been keeping track of the cowboy in a peripheral manner, but now he became aware that the cowboy was still pumping himself, but also saying something.

“Willya look at the tits on that little bitch!”

Sam looked and saw that the object of the bastard's lust was a very young girl; somewhere around 12, Sam thought. His throat went dry and he felt a hot anger rush through him. “That tears it,” Sam thought.

“He's a baby-raping wacko.” Sam had his right hand was on the door latch and the left prepared to knock some teeth out.

“God, I'd like to fuck her,” the cowboy was moaning. “I'd like to fuck her with this till she felt it in her throat!” He was flexing around in the seat now, entirely out of hand. His tone had changed, becoming more fervent. He said, “The head of my cock is so big and smooth and hard—”

Although he had managed not to react to all this moronic talk so far, Sam could hear a new aching tone in the pervert's voice. It gave him the creeps, as if a snake had just crawled over him. He had heard too much not to expect it to just keep getting worse and it didn't take much imagination to see what had to come next. The cowboy turned and looked at him mournfully.

“Here it comes,” Sam thought grimly and braced himself.

“Here, feel it,” the cowboy offered. He sounded as if he were merely inviting Sam to stroke the nap of his expensive corduroy jacket. The cowboy turned his body sideways in the seat, aiming the awful thing at him as if to allow Sam a better grasp of the situation. That was one snake too many.

Sam pushed the door open so quickly that he fell out and scraped his palms on the pavement. He didn't lose a moment, just pushed himself upright and headed for the back door.

“Hey, shut that goddamn door, somebody'll see me!” the cowboy yelled.

“Somebody ought to see you, you malignant twitching masturbating son of a bitch!” Sam wanted to scream, but even now he didn't say it. For some absolutely ludicrous reason, it was more important to save that backpack than to tell the cowboy what he thought of him. Sam was crafty to the end.

“Thanks for the ride,” he said loudly, “but I think I'll get out here!”

Furiously Sam opened the back door. In the meanwhile, the cowboy had ducked down in the seat, awkwardly trying to cover himself. He looked like some bizarre species of seal or slug with a handle in the middle, writhing and flailing and hunching toward the passenger door. One hand was desperately groping for the door handle while the other was frenziedly trying to tuck his erection back into those ultra-tight jeans. Sam couldn't see how the bastard would manage to get it in without breaking it off at the stem, but he did it.

“The hell you say!” Sam thought. He had no intention of being thwarted at this point. Just as the jerkoff jerked the door shut and jumped behind the steering wheel again, Sam yanked his backpack out with such force that the aluminum frame ripped a gash in the velour upholstery. He didn't pause, just turned and walked away. A few seconds later he was 40 feet away, breathing hard and feeling like he'd come out of a long tunnel. God, the air felt good! He lit a cigarette, his hands shaking, and when he looked up, the Cadillac was speeding like a bat out of hell down the access road and back onto the freeway. The cowboy glanced back at him, his face grim.

“Someday this will be funny,” Sam thought.

In the meanwhile he muttered under his breath every filthy and violent epithet he knew and it made him feel better. He hung around for a while looking at the vacationing families, but from the looks they gave him, he could tell they thought as little of him as he thought of the cowboy. There wasn't any sense in asking them for a ride. He considered asking the truckers, but thought better of it. He went to the road and put out his thumb; this time he didn't care if it took forever. He felt that he had just acquired a brand-new reserve of patience.

Though it took a long time, he finally caught a ride with a couple of vacationing lawyers from Denver headed for El Paso. Their station wagon was so full of fishing and camping gear that Sam could barely squeeze in, but after the exposed spaciousness of the Cadillac, he felt snug and comfortable in the clutter.

“I'm surprised you guys stopped since you were already so crowded.”

“Hell, I guess you're just lucky,” the driver said.


“Yeah, that's right,” the one in the passenger seat said, turning around.

“We weren't going to stop, but then Dave here said that there must be some very interesting story to explain why a guy would have his thumb out at a rest stop out here in the middle of nowhere.”

Sam thought a moment. They were in New Mexico now, he'd figured that out back at the rest stop. But nothing was different, not really. He'd found a “middle of nowhere” in every damn state he'd been in.

“Well, it does take talent,” he told them with a grin. “Or plain old Bad Karma,” he thought, and began to laugh. Once he got started, he felt like he wouldn't be able to stop.

“Sounds like there's some kind of story,” the driver yelled back in a friendly voice, and Sam nodded vigorously and grinned. The lawyers laughed too, because they were amiable people.

“Yes, well?” the one in the passenger seat asked, turning around in his seat and looking at him expectantly.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Sam said…

The ride to El Paso was the best ride he'd ever had.



4th draft: 02/20/07
©1990 Ronald C. Southern


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Incest: Callow Postulation In The Cave

The boys were sitting around that evening in an apartment that they referred to as “the cave” because it was a converted basement that had no windows and a very low ceiling. Being young, they were comfortable enough in it, though, and were talking—sometimes laconically, sometimes excitedly—about sex and The World. The usual sort of late-night talk among young men smoking pot. The subject turned to incest and a couple of them started saying they thought it might be perfectly natural for a man to want to introduce his own daughter to sex.

“He'd certainly be kinder about it than most young men would be, don't you think?” George postulated.

Dogger nodded, but Roddy turned serious and his face turned red.

“Oh come on, guys, that's repugnant!” Roddy said with an air of quiet disgust. “I bet you two will sing a different tune about all that when you're older.”

“That may be,” George laughed, “but if so, it may be because we lost ourselves rather than because we found some sense.”

“You have no way of judging that in advance, though!” Roddy told him pointedly. “You don't know all that, you're just guessing!”

“We all are, aren't we?” George smirked. “About all of it.”

“Well, if you know you're guessing, why do you try to sound so sure of yourself then?” Roddy's voice was quiet, but clearly he had become almost uncontrollably disturbed by their talk of incest as something that might be natural. It didn't matter to him how long he'd grown his hair or how many drugs he'd taken; he refused to think about sex with his daughter, not even one he didn't have yet!

“We're just postulating about the possible, Roddy,” George said in a conciliatory voice. “Just talking aloud about what might be true now, or what could be true in the future. Sounding “sure” when we talk about it is just another way of testing how good the theories sound.”

“I think you're postulating about the horrible!”

“Well, okay then, the horrible possibility!” George grinned.

“I think you're nuts!” Roddy said.

“I've never denied it,” George grinned back.

“It's not that we're less moral than you are, Roddy,” Dogger said, who in fact couldn’t even imagine having a daughter, much less having sex with her. “But it’s just that we're determined not to be intimidated by what we think about. Being afraid to think about things is like all those straights you ordinarily despise who shit a brick every time they hear somebody say “shit”, much less mention a terrible societal taboo like incest. Or who want to ban all the dirty books that they’ve never read. They're hung up on words and afraid of words, which is only another way of being afraid of communication. Communication is never a bad thing, I think; not even arguments, for that means that at least you're not fighting yet!”

“Yes, but—” Roddy muttered.

Somebody knocked at the door just then and their conversation ended. It was Andrew, just in from his place in the country. Soon George, Roddy, and Andrew were smoking another j and arguing about the importance of the lyrics on the new Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young record.

“Goofy bastards,” Dogger thought. He was more inclined toward the Doors, if he was going to worry about “important” lyrics. He was goofy, too, of course.


Current draft: 02/10/07
©1989 Ronald C. Southern


Friday, February 09, 2007

Another Convoluted Conversation

“I don't know about those days, anyway,” Marilyn said. “The Vietnamese people were dying, and we kept on worrying about the price of drugs,” she complained.

“It's not much different now,” Dogger Gatsby said. “The students in China are dying now, and we continue to worry about Literature.”

“Literature's probably more valuable, don't you think?”

“Probably. But the Vietnamese and Chinese may not think it.”

“Touché.” Marilyn laughed.

“Does that word have anything to do with 'touch'?” he asked.

“Oh... Well, I really don't know. Why?”

“Just checking. Hoping.”

“Oh, Mr. Gatsby, get outta town!” she laughed.

He laughed too, but didn’t leave town. He sat down beside her and hoped for the best.

5th draft: 02/09/07
©2003 Ronald C. Southern


Thursday, February 08, 2007

A World Of Satisfaction

“Oh, hell, those people!” Mike snapped when somebody mentioned a couple of the supervisors at work. “Far as I'm concerned, somebody just needs to rip their fuckin' heads off and shit down their goddamn necks. Maybe then they'd wake up!”

“Jesus, that's gross,” Don said, though he was clearly amused by the idea and by the ferocity with which Mike expressed it.

“I don't care,” Mike drawled, “and I don't give a rat's ass! He was grinning and snarling at the same time, apparently enjoying his diatribe. “It'd improve their goddamn dispositions, if you ask me. I know it'd give me a world of satisfaction to see it!”

Over in the corner Jason, had been listening quietly as usual and now he cracked up.

“Jesus, I can't believe the stuff you're liable to say, Mike!”

Mike Patterson was the major domo, the prima donna, the loudest voice, among the boys at the shop. His style was intelligent, high-flown, imaginative, yet thoroughly gut-bucket vulgar and nasty. He could talk informatively for hours about his home computer and all his new programs, then turn around and praise to the skies some poorly-drawn crude cartoon from Hustler Magazine, usually one having something to do with excrement or women with the most immense exaggerated genitalia, preferably being penetrated by male organs the size of a man’s leg.

“Look at this guy!” Mike would chortle, shoving the magazine in somebody's face all the while so they could get a good look. “Just look at him, willya!” He was leaning back comfortably in his chair and snickering, pointing to the cartoon character whose penis had grown as large as he was.

“Well, he might be able to fuck the whole world now,” Red shrugged, “but the boy sure can't fuck any women.”

“Why's that?” Mike grinned. “Oh, hell, sure, he can, there's plenty of these skags around here with cunts big enough for one a those,” he smirked, exploding with laughter, yet seeming to speak with thorough conviction.

Red grinned back slightly, not wanting to show how dumbfounded or offended he was by the remark. He'd heard guys talking like this all his life, but he'd never understood it very well. Sometimes it seemed to go beyond the meanness of a joke. He wondered if Mike really believed all that moronic, humorless, and hateful stuff or if he talked like that because he hated women?

Maybe his momma dropped him on his head when he was little, Red thought.

Or could it have perhaps gone beyond that for men like Mike, that it somehow expressed how little respect Mike had for anyone, for life itself. It bothered him, but he knew better than to say anything about it. He knew he didn't have to say anything about it, so he always tried not to, yet sometimes Mike would read his thoughts.

“You can try to act like you're above it,” Mike grinned, but face it; men have got to have their revenge against women, and this is about the only civilized way there is.”

“What the hell do you mean by that?”

“Every man feels it, but not every man needs to go out and act it all out. These porno stories and cartoons act it out for most of us. I figure porn keeps the number of axe-wielding sex murderers down in the dozens instead of up in the thousands. Just my theory, of course.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Red muttered. “Just a theory, I mean.”

“Except, of course, I seem to recall you saying a couple of times how hundreds, maybe thousands, of women owe you gratitude for not following your initial momentary impulse to just jump on 'em and fuck 'em!”

“I have said something like that,” Red said with chagrin. “I don't know if we're talking about the same thing or not. I wouldn't actually say that to a woman.”

“Well, I don't drag 'em over here and force their heads down in these gut-bucket nasty Hustler magazines, either,” Mike snapped. “You think you're better than me when you're only a little more insistently polite about your language and your images than I am. A lot of this stuff is all the same stuff, I say.”

“Maybe. God, I hope not, though,” Red sighed.


4th draft: 02/08/07
©1990 Ronald C. Southern


Sunday, February 04, 2007


(Razor Blades and Dominoes)

Sharon Goodnight and Dogger Gatsy sat together after dinner, talking, laughing, and drinking beer while the radio played softly in the back­ground. They had always enjoyed bantering. Dogger noticed that some rock group on the radio was singing a frenetic refrain which he could only half-hear since the radio was set at such a low volume. He wondered what the hell was so important about “razor blades and dominoes”. Maybe he'd heard the lyrics wrong.

“I'm sorry, you know,” Dogger said after a while. “I couldn't help thinking that I'd think about sleeping with you once I realized I was going to see you again after so long.”

“I thought about that, too,” Sharon smiled. “That you'd think about it, I mean.”

He nodded at her and lit a cigarette.

“Is that what you're thinking now?” she asked. “I mean, do you want to? It's not something that always worked out well between us.”

Dogger nodded again, a dumb, but not dumbfounded, look on his face.

“I guess,” he sighed. “I don't know whether it'd be the right thing or the wrong thing, but I know I couldn't turn it down. After 15 years, I'm afraid that nothing will work, that—”

“Fifteen years?” she asked, leaning forward to touch his wrist with her fingertips. She looked aston­ished. He nodded, but didn't look at her.

“After that,” he continued, “It's hard not to worry that nothing's ever going to work out again. That I'm completely crazy. That I don't remember what's necessary.”

“No one forgets that, surely, Ed,” she whispered. “I mean, sex is—”

“Like riding a bicycle?” he grinned. “No, I don't guess that you do forget the mechanics. But I suspect you can, or that I can, forget the instinct, the feelings, the emotional balance of making love. I'm so pathetically, monolithi­cally blind and empty and hungry now that I could devour a woman, finger-nails, eyes, teeth, and soul altogether. All at once—wham!—­­­in a fell swoop, in a single gulp! Or try to, anyway, even if it turned out that my dick didn't really work any more.”

“Seems like you'd know already whether your dick works or not,” she teased. “It doesn't take two for that.”

“That's true, Sharon,” he laughed. “It doesn't take two at all.”

“Well?” she asked.

“Well, technically, it works,” he sighed.

She nodded and waited for him to continue, seeing that the moment hadn't lightened at all.

“But a sexual life so far removed from either real sex or real life for such a long time creates a world so artificial and strained that feelings and sensation become—well, artificial. Listen, I don't know how to say it clearly, or maybe I just don't have the nerve. But, to make it short, it's very far from real. So I don't know if what is wrong is real or not, either. Something's wrong, of course, even if it's only sympto­matic of everything else that's wrong.”

“It sounds terrible,” she said.

“It feels worse. Like being dead, without the obvious benefits.”

“What benefits, for the love of Christ?”

“Cessation of stress. The end of thoughts and dreams. Peace. What else?”

“Jesus, Ed, maybe I should sleep with you,” she said softly. It almost sounded like a question.

“Maybe you should. The thought of it excites me and sickens me at the same time. It may be too late. It might destroy me as surely as my imagination wants to suggest that it would unerringly save me.”

“You've bit the big one, haven't you?” she smiled.

“The mother of all donkey dongs,” he nodded, making a wide gesture with his hands. “And it's not a thing that you can generally tell, not even to people who know you, love you, and probably suspect it anyway. It's like all that clammi­ness and claustrophobia in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. All those savage feelings and yet being so powerless at the same time. It won't go away, and you can't leave it. At some point, you just surrender to it, I guess. It's just—”

“The horror,” she interjected, as if finishing his sentence. “I know about that,” she said. “A lot of people do. There's lots of roads to Africa.”

He smiled tiredly, leaned back in his chair, and blew smoke into the air.

“Say, what was that damn question you asked me a minute ago, Sharon?” he asked vaguely.

They looked into each other's eyes for a moment, then both laughed loudly as if the tension had finally broken a little. After that, they sat for a long while, staring at each other in affectionate silence, two old friends wondering if it was really possible to make things any worse or any better and if they were about to do so. As kind as they wished to be to one another, the way things were going, it didn’t seem likely.


3rd draft: 02/04/07
©2002 Ronald C. Southern


The Drowning

When the nude young man, tall and tan and apparently drowned, was washed up out of the sea, Stella Frances found him. Stella Frances Irons was a plump, somewhat stern-looking, ash-blonde woman in her mid-fifties. Though it hadn't always helped her, she had always loved the beach. Since her husband's death six years ago, she'd spent every summer alone in the beach house the two of them together had seldom had time for, now a mile or so behind her. She had strolled along this part of the beach every afternoon of every summer, but she'd never encountered anything like this.

Stella Frances didn't mean to be, but she was a little bit frightened of the man. She was afraid that he might be dead, yet even more afraid because he was naked. She had been married for a good long time and knew what men looked like when they were naked, but her husband had been dead for six years now and she no longer felt comfortable (if she ever had) in the presence of nudity—anyone's nudity. Even alone in her own house, she liked to keep most of her clothes on until it was time for shower and bed.

The presence of this naked man in daylight, this mysterious foolish-looking tan man who was either dead or unconscious, was only slightly less unnerving than if he'd been awake and looking right at her, maybe even—well, saying something awful! At least while he was unconscious, she neither had to look at him or pretend that she wasn't looking!

She rubbed her hands anxiously and frowned very hard. She couldn't think, couldn't think straight at all, but she should do something, she was sure of that. She whipped off her straw hat and stared at it blankly for a moment, then trotted down to the sea and scooped up a hatful of water. She ran back, breathing hard and feeling her weight with every step, remembering sadly how prettily she used to bounce! She had never quite gotten used to being overweight. All her life she'd been a pretty girl, and it was hard now sometimes for her to remember about her loss of looks and grace. It had been hard for her these last few years, unlearning her confidence in herself. As she ran, Stella Frances stumbled and looked down. The tightly-woven straw hat was leaking more and more with every step she took. "Hurry, hurry!" she told herself. She was convinced she had to get there soon or she'd look like a bigger fool than she felt, arriving without any water in her hat!

Finally she got there, gasping for air. She leaned down over the naked man and splashed what remained of the water on his face. He didn't stir. She still couldn't tell if he was dead. Just then, a small Negro boy ran up, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Shit, lady, that man's drownt with water, he don't need no more!"

"Listen, young man, don't you—!"

Stella Frances paused, looking confused. She had been about to give the boy a long sharp sermon about his language, then considered that there were more important things.

"Oh—yes. I suppose you must be right," she said, shaking her head. What the little fellow said was really quite sensible, she thought. "I'm just being stupid." It was a great relief, really, for someone else to come along, even if it was just the colored boy.

"Well, you're a very smart young man, aren't you?" she told him.

The boy looked slightly startled at her change in tone. He seemed to frown at her with his eyes, though he kept his mouth firmly set in a straight, inexpressive line. Regionald was ten and he already hated being talked to in that patronizing tone of voice. White people were especially good at it, he knew, though it wasn't peculiar to them. Anyone older than him was liable to use it.

"Makes 'em feel smart!" he thought sullenly.

"Maybe you know where the nearest telephone is, dear, and can get some help over here?" Stella Frances asked in a sugarcoated voice.

"Yeah, I know, lady," the boy muttered disinterestedly. "There's a house real close."

"Do you know who lives there?"

"Sure, lady."

"Yes?" she asked hopefully.

"I do."


Stella Frances couldn't comprehend the little boy's cloudy answers. Why was he making it so hard, she wondered? He did seem bright, but he just wouldn't volunteer anything. She'd have to try again.

"Well, run as fast as you can, dear, and call the sheriff or the operator or somebody and tell them to send an ambulance out here right away!"

As she spoke, the boy rocked back and forth, changing restlessly from one foot to another. He stared at her relentlessly all the while, his mouth opening wider and wider until, to Stella Frances, he looked like a gaping idiot. What was the matter with the boy, she wondered! He started walking backwards toward his house before she finished speaking, and by the time she'd said the word "ambulance", he was already trotting. If he had run in a straight line he'd have been out of sight already, but the boy ran playfully, looping back and forth. Still he was quite a distance off when he hollered back over his shoulder.

"It won't do no good to call for the sher'ff, lady!"

The child's voice was shrill, though not weak, and it seemed as if the wind was going to blow his words away before she could catch them. She screwed up her face and strained to hear him. Her hearing wasn't what it used to be. She paused before answering, waiting to make sure she'd understood him.

"Why in the world not?" she yelled hoarsely, as loudly as she could. She was annoyed at the child, running away so quickly and making her have to shout like that, but she realized that it was neither fair nor wise to let her crossness show in her voice. He was only a little boy, after all. And if she made him mad, he might just run away and not do what he'd promised.

"Why not?!" she yelled again, her throat aching with the unaccustomed strain.

"Cause that's Sher'ff Constancio you got lying there 'thout no clothes on!" the boy yelled from far off.

"Oh, my goodness!" she muttered. She stood there frowning for a moment, then smiled. "Well, that explains it," she thought. "He isn't tan, he's Spanish! I've never seen a Mexican man undressed before." She wasn't sure why it was, but she was certain it was something interesting.

Suddenly her smile dropped away as she thought of something and she raised her hand to her forehead. "Oh, no!" she thought. "That's exactly what that silly little boy will tell them, too—that I've got the sheriff naked out here! It'll be all over town in no time. People will be talking about it a long time before they have any facts—the same way they talk about things a long time after all the facts have been forgotten and the truth won't much matter. The truth never does."

Stella Frances understood about gossip; she'd started enough of it herself. She just knew she was going to end up looking ridiculous. Ever since Edward had died, the fear of it had been her constant companion. No one had ever liked her as much as Edward did.

She couldn't understand why she acted like this, felt like this. It was only when she was at the beach that she felt so insecure. At the university where she worked she was fairly masterful, she knew, at times even intimidating with people. Before she'd been demoted from the position of executive secretary to the President of the college, some people had even feared her. To her, that part had all been funny, though. She'd never felt very frightening; she'd only felt like herself. But why, oh, why did she get so disconcerted during the summers now? She couldn't understand it. Even though she was old enough to know better (and knew it very well) and even though she'd dealt with enough men at work not to take them very seriously, still she wasn't used to baby-sitting naked men, Caucasian or Spanish, dead or otherwise. She was shaken by an uncomfortable premonition that everyone she knew (and even some she didn't) were going to be preternaturally curious about this mess she'd stumbled into.

"God, they'll be asking me no-telling what-all silly questions about it!" she muttered, her face turning red. "I wonder if I shouldn't go and look at him more carefully so I'll have some kind of answers?"

Her lips were dry and she licked them. She knew she couldn't just keep standing there like an ignoramus, a frightened woman who refused to notice a single detail of an interesting situation, but she couldn't very well go stand and stare at that naked Mexican either.

"What about that butt-naked man you found on the beach?" the smart-aleck kids on the beach would laugh.

Stella Frances shuddered. Young people were always so direct and vulgar. It was just awful, she felt, sharing a love for the beach with such wild and unpleasant creatures. She really couldn't see where they loved anything. She had to suppress a desire to call the police every time she saw them, but police these days, she'd found, weren't interested in anything less than murder or bank robbery or arson. They didn't have time for her complaints at all. In fact, the last time she'd called them about prowlers one of the detectives had spoken rather brusquely, she'd felt.

"Look, lady, things are changin'," Detective Trunnels had said, "and I ain't in charge of the changes. Don't blame me 'cause things are getting worse all the time, 'cause mostly it's the same damn people that pay my salary that are getting worse! Miz Irons, you just can't do nothin' when everything changes!"

The policeman's talk frightened her; it had given her the impression that he was as helpless as she was and she didn't like thinking about that. The world had gone topsy-turvy enough when her husband had died without men in general ceasing to be what she expected of men. She was often confused and angry. "But so's that policeman," she sighed.

The ladies at the Bromeliad Club would have their say too about the drowned man, she knew that. "What did you see, Stella?" they'd ask her, their faces prim, but their eyes snickering at her. Why was everyone like that these days?! What was the matter with everyone? It made her so uncomfortable!

And what could she say, after all? "I found a naked man unconscious on the beach. That's all I know."

"That's all, Stella?"

Say something else! Say something else, they're snickering!

"Uh—a little Negro boy ran up and said he was the sheriff. I just took his word for it, though. I'd never seen him before in my life!"

But didn't that sound a little like the boy said he was the sheriff? Oh! She'd sound stupid, all right, she just knew it. All because she hadn't paid attention. She couldn't focus, just couldn't focus!

"Maybe I should take a better look at him," she thought nervously, "just to see if he's still alive."

Actually she'd been staring at him the entire time since the boy had run away, though only at his face. She had held her hat in front of her so that it obscured the rest of him. He might be bleeding to death, instead of just half-drowned, as far as she could swear later in a court of law. Somebody might hold her responsible, she worried. For all she knew, some kind of murderous Spanish obscenities might be scrawled across his belly in lipstick and blood. "I really ought to look him over!"

She moved the hat and looked, but had to look away immediately again. It was really too much. The horrible man, though certainly still unconscious, was—well, aroused! She cleared her throat several times.

"Oh my!" she thought. "They'll be here pretty soon. Someone will come up and this is what they'll see. Oh...oh, dear..." She had to stifle an urge to wake him up, to shake him and make him stop it. "That wouldn't work, though," she told herself impatiently. Besides, how good an idea could it be to wake up a man with—well, one of those!

She thought about throwing her hat over it, but that didn't seem like such a good idea. She didn't want to lose her hat, and she wouldn't exactly want it back after—putting it there! But what if she did it anyway, she thought? Every time she put her hat on again, she'd think about the man who'd—.

Suddenly, for the first time in years, she really laughed. "This is so ridiculous!" she gasped.

She walked over to the man, smiling now, blurred her vision intentionally so she wouldn't have to see what she'd already seen, and threw her big straw hat over his crotch. She sighed with relief and then leaned down.

"Well—no obscenities, at least," she thought as her eyes came to rest on his chest. She giggled a little as she lightly held her fingers against his cheek and nose to check his breath. Yes, he was breathing—fairly regularly too. When she stood up, she jumped back quickly, quite out of breath.

"Goodness! That took more nerve than I've used in years!"

Suddenly she remembered how her husband, Edward, used to wake up like that several mornings a week, no matter how old he got. When she'd been a young woman, she'd accused him of doing it on purpose to aggravate her, but she'd finally realized it didn't have much to do with her and that it wasn't anything he had much control over. Usually it went away as soon as he'd gone to the bathroom, so she just stopped looking at him in the mornings until after he'd gone.

"Bluesteel boners!" she thought suddenly and giggled again. She'd almost forgotten that silly, vulgar phrase of her husband's until now! She put her hand over her mouth, trying to stifle herself, fearing someone would choose that exact inopportune moment to come rescue the half-drowned Sheriff Constancio.

"I'm really feeling rather giddy," she thought. "Is this what they mean by hysteria?"

She looked up and down the beach desperately. Far, far down the beach she saw several teenagers poking around in the sand. She knew she ought to stand up and wave at them, do anything she could to get their attention, but she sat down quickly beside the sheriff and crouched there, low and out of sight, breathing heavily. Even if her failure brought injury to the poor drowned sheriff, she couldn't bring herself to deal with those awful young people. She couldn't tell too well from this distance, but one of them even looked like he might be the one she suspected of peeking in her windows at night. She couldn't stand the idea of being friendly or obligated to that boy! She'd heard them talking among themselves and they talked so roughly for no reason at all! They were probably all on dope. She could just imagine him saying something like, "Hey, fuck you, lady! You deal with it!" What possible use could those crude and cruel children be to her or anyone else?

She went back and checked the man's breathing again and he seemed to be breathing even better now. She placed her right hand on his forehead to check his temperature. Unconsciously her left hand rested lightly on the curve of his stomach. His belly was rising and falling noticeably now, reminding her of a sleeping dog.

"He's just an ordinary-looking man," she thought charitably. "Kind of handsome, kind of stupid."

Suddenly she wasn't afraid of him at all. She felt warm toward him, almost maternal. She smiled and began to pat his belly. But moments later she realized what she was doing and stiffened. It suddenly became clear to her how the most embarrassing thing would be if he woke up before anyone got there, not if someone showed up before he woke up! She liked the new idea even less than the old one! "But how embarrassing for him!" she couldn't help thinking.

"Poor man," she whispered. Affectionately, yet still quite unconsciously, she patted his stomach again. "Poor, poor fellow," she thought. But somehow she was thinking of herself as well. "Maybe I should put something else over him, something less ridiculous than this," she sighed.

She tried to think what that might be, but there really wasn't anything else, whether ridiculous or not. She had a scarf, but the wind would just blow that away. It wasn't big enough to tie around him and she could hardly tie it to—!

"Oh!" She laughed louder than ever, finally clapping her hands over her mouth to stifle her noise.

"Dear God, I'm cackling!" she grinned. "Why is this so difficult?!"

She looked up and down the beach anxiously. Off in the distance in one direction she could see the small group of young people moving away. From the other direction the young Negro boy was returning, running lazily, unconcernedly. Drat the boy! He hadn't brought a blanket or anything. Or had she even asked him to? She couldn't remember. She hoped he'd at least called for help.

"I tole my mama!" the boy hollered in his thin unfriendly voice. "She phoned somebody, okay?"

"He sounds so far away," she thought. "Or is it just me?"

Stella Frances Irons sighed, feeling confused again and inconsolably sad. She felt cheated. She hadn't felt this way—threatened, excited, involved, called upon—since her husband had died, and she'd missed it without even knowing it. If there had been enough time, she would even have thought of something to cover the young man with, she was sure of it. Still, a part of her was relieved that someone was coming, even if it was just the colored boy. She wasn't responsible for this nonsense, after all. She just happened to be there.


4th draft: 02/02/07
©1989 Ronald C. Southern


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Odd Phrases

Odd Phrases

“I don't know about you,” she said, not sounding very serious. “Sometimes I think you're just a moralizing chauvinist.”

“That's just some new crackpot term for an old‑fashioned sexist, isn't it?” Harlan laughed.

Suzanne smiled, shook her head, and took a slow sip from her glass. “No. Let me think a minute. I'm trying to remember some­thing.”

“Take your time.”

It was an early Sunday afternoon at her home on the outskirts of Farless River Estates. It wasn't on one of the more expensive lots on the bank of the river and certainly not one of the fancy hill‑houses that seemed to hang by a finger­nail far out over the water. One of her favorite pastimes was skinny‑dipping late at night, but she had to walk down a long muddy hill to get to the water, so the house wasn't that well‑placed, and she regretted that. When she first bought it ten years ago, her friends had all teased her.

“Far less than what?” they'd smirked.

She didn't know. (Or very much care, either; it was her damn house and she liked it.) Maybe the Indians had called it that, she told them. There were no Indians left to ask about it.

Suzanne and Harlan were taking things slowly, staying out of the after­noon sun. It was August, and they were in the midst of the “dog days”, a terrible time in Central Texas. The central air conditioner was furiously running up a bill and the ceiling fan blades turned slowly overhead. They sat at her kitchen table and talked, drinking W.L. Weller whiskey, and wait­ing for the soup to cook. Every so often, they had a cup of coffee and men­tioned that tired old joke about wide‑awake drunks, though neither of them was very drunk yet.

The smell of steaming vegetables and beef seeped from the big pot on the stove. It made Harlan's mouth water. His stomach grumbled slightly and he wondered if Suzanne could hear it. Apparently she couldn't. She would pro­bably have offered him something if he'd spoken up, but he preferred to wait for the soup.

Harlan sat gazing out the big picture window and thought how much he had always liked her kitchen. The grass in her long back yard, as usual, was over­due for a mowing. Her son Willy was nineteen and always had to be hounded a good deal before it got done. Harlan remembered being bad about that himself.

“Christ, I still am,” he thought. He could have offered to give Willy a hand, but never did.

Close by, he could see Suzanne's longhaired old terrier Frabjous lying in the cool dirt under the storage shed, as still as a turtle. He stared for a long time without seeing movement of any kind, then wondered if the dog might be dead. When he was a kid his dog had turned up dead like that—unexpe­ctedly, just looking asleep at first, so that he had laughed and yelled, “Wake up, sleepy­head!” and gone over and smacked the dog on the hind­quarters. But then he'd noticed the stiff­ness in the dog's legs, and he had backed away and screamed until everybody came running.

“The dog's dead,” his father told him, shaking his head, “you can't do anything about it.”

“Don't cry,” his mother said gently, “we'll get you another one.”

Grownups say such stupid things to you when your best friend is dead, he thought. Yet he was the grownup now and shouldn't be thinking like that. He leaned forward, though, staring out the win­dow and starting to get uptight. Suddenly Frabjous kicked his legs out and rolled over, turning his scarred head toward the window.

“Frab, you stinking old bastard!” Harlan sighed and leaned back.

The tough little terrier had always been a fighter. The street vendors down on the drag used to call him “the little terror” and smile when he padded by, looking so deceptively innocent. Everyone knew that a moment later they might have to risk their lives pulling him out of a fight, for Frabjous wasn't afraid of the devil's Dobermans, much less any ordinary members of his species that were twice his size.

“Why the little canine psychopath was so damned popular was never very clear to me,” Harlan thought. Yet he had always liked the dog too.

Suzanne hated those fights, but she loved the ridiculous dog. She called him “The Old Territorial Bastard”, a nickname taken humorously these days, but dead serious in origin. One evening some years ago the neighbor­hood kids had wheeled Frab home in a little red Hi Flyer wagon. The kids all talked at once, trying to explain how the terrier had gotten so badly cut up. The fight, they said, had started when the German shepherd down the road jumped on a young cocker spaniel. The children, of course, thought Frab was a hero. Harlan looked down at the little triumphal procession and smiled, remembering how much fun it used to be to think about dogs that way. Frabjous, of course, had no need of such heroic excuses; he would have done it eventually just for the hell of it.

They eased the dog into the back of Harlan's truck, and he drove them to the vet. All the way into town, Suzanne sat holding the dog's bloody ear onto his head with one hand and nearly choking the life out of him with the other to make him hold still. She was weeping and hollering at the same time, and for a while he couldn't make out what she was saying. She scared the shit out of Harlan, but Frabjous just looked a little guilty and quietly closed his eyes. When Harlan slowed the truck for the red light in Oak Hill, he finally heard her.

“You goddamn old murdering territorial bastard,” she was yelling, “I'll kill you for doing this to me, I'll kill you!” Somewhere around the tenth time, Harlan ceased to believe her.

That was a few years ago. Frabjous was twelve now and going blind in one eye and didn't fight as often, though he fought just as hard. This afternoon in his favorite shady spot, the old bastard panted steadily. With his eyes closed tight and his tongue hanging out, his face seemed to wear a lascivious grin. Harlan figured the heat was getting to the dog and said so to Suzanne.

“Look again,” she said with a grin. Harlan looked. The old dog's rosy little member was peeking out from between his furry legs. “Now you know what the Old Territorial Bastard dreams about,” she laughed.

“I always thought he dreamed about eating those stupid cats of yours,” Harlan said.

In the middle of the yard Suzanne's two Persians, Bhagwan and Dali, were prowling and leaping through the long grass, apparently practicing their death‑pounce. They left the old dog alone, though not because they were charitable; Suzanne's son Willy had told him once that they'd learned their lesson in that particular quarter. They worked the small fry—mainly lizards, cockroaches, and taran­tulas, although there were several phantoms that only the cats could see. “Maybe it's chinch bugs,” Harlan thought. He wondered where the cats got the energy for it. For that matter, how could they even stand being outdoors on such a hot day?

“You give those cats too much catnip,” Harlan laughed. “Look.”

Suzanne glanced out the window and smiled. “They're just full of piss and vinegar,” she said.

“Don't they ever run out of victims?”


Harlan thought that the cats were strange. It may have been the names she'd given them, or the reason she'd given them the names, he didn't know which. The names, of course, didn't impress the cats. In fact, the names had barely stuck to them at all. Most people thought Dali was “Dolly” and nobody felt comfortable saying Bhagwan. It was easier to use Suzanne's nicknames, so most of the time the cats were just Bogs and Dolly.

Harlan stubbornly insisted that the self‑absorbed little toads didn't know one name from another, that they'd come just as quickly if you called them “Doorknob”. Suzanne disputed that, of course. Sometimes he proved they would, and sometimes she proved they wouldn't, but mostly the cats ignored him no matter what names he called them. That wasn't what made him think the cats were toads, though. What brought him to this conviction was that Bhagwan and Dali seemed to like nothing better than to jump in his lap and make a graceful slow circle (sinking their claws firmly into his legs at every step), then raise their fluffy tails and show him a view of the moon.

“See this?” they seemed to say. “Isn't this nice?” Somehow Harlan was never properly impressed. “Listen, you smug Persian toadfrog, I'd smash your silly face if it wasn't already smashed,” he'd say. Why, he wondered, did he never have a sharp pencil when he needed one?

“Do you train them to do this?” he'd asked Suzanne once, making a face nearly as puckered as the cat's behind. He had his hand around Bhagwan's fluffy tail, and looked as if he meant to do some­thing extreme, possibly involving aerodynamic cats.

Suzanne put her hand over her mouth and laughed, but hurried to remove the cat from his lap. “No, I think it's just something they have a natural talent for! They must like you, though, they don't show their ass to just anybody!”

“Yeah, I'll bet,” he said. “I don't think anything much impresses those little furballs or that they like anybody much except you.”

“Maybe so, but they get to do what they want to do, and I think somebody in this world ought to,” Suzanne said. “I guess that's why I like to watch them so much. And, besides, sometimes even I'm just the lunkhead that feeds them. Nothing's snootier than a snooty cat.”

“I can believe that,” Harlan said. He didn't really like cats, although Bhagwan and Dali were so bizarre and obstinate that he couldn't help being interested. He liked to watch them, as long as he could keep a safe dis­tance. He put his feet up on a kitchen chair full of newspapers, and closed his eyes and sighed. The cats were outside, there was nothing to worry about. Suzanne lit a cigarette and closed her eyes too. She put her fin­gertips to her forehead and frowned, still trying to remember.

“Okay,” she said, “I've got it! 'A moralizing chauvinist is a man who wants the perfection he sees in women, but doesn't know what to do with one unless she makes perfect sense.'“

Harlan shook his head and furrowed his eyebrows at her, as any sensitive guest might have done. (He remembered reading somewhere that you don't hear the bullet until it's already whizzed past you or through you.) Suzanne's eyes, though still closed, looked to Harlan as if they might be twinkling. She looked smug, as if able to detect his reactions through her eyelids. She knew that his curiosity was bound to overcome any sensitivity he had, and she waited. Harlan hated waiting.

“What is this,” he asked impatiently, “the goddamn dramatic pause? Is that all of it or not?”

She shook her head and held up a finger, signifying “wait”. Then she resumed: “'He wants to fully know a woman—­which is really only a civilized form of ravishment—and yet no one, male or female, really wants to be known like that.'“

“Good grief, where'd you get that from,” he teased, “the Kinsey Report or Hitler's Diary?”

Suzanne opened her eyes and laughed, “From the goddamn Sunday Parade, where do you think!”

“Yeah, sure; they have stuff like that all the time,” he laughed.

Suzanne had a good memory, after a fashion, he knew that. She fin­ished every book that she started, though, even the bad ones, and sometimes got overloaded. She couldn't always recall where these things came from. Harlan didn't have that problem. If a book wasn't any good by the hundredth page, he would quit flat. “That's where you miss the jewel in the shitpile, though,” she always insisted. He meant to ask her if she could remember which shitpile this latest one had come from, but he got distracted. Suzanne often did that to him, though it wasn't any of her doing.

“For what it's worth,” he thought, “she really looks lovely today.”

It would probably be dangerous to say so, however. Suzanne was such a modern, unromantic woman. Worse, she was an old friend and his best friend; she was bound to object to his compliments on one ground or another. It would have been compli­cated enough if she'd just been a woman. He never noticed just when it had become so wrong to mention their beauty to women, only that it had. All it took was them to look at him as if he had some wretched ulterior motive, and he'd begin to feel that he did. Talking about beauty to women these days was a vice with its own immediate punishment.

“You're the most damnably intellectual woman I know,” he told her. Crap, what a self-conscious sentence, he thought.

“Oh, bullshit,” she said, shaking her head and giving him a sweet-sour glance as she got up to check the soup. It was about what he'd expected, of course; she'd been giving him those looks for years. For some reason he wanted to impress her today, but he wasn't off to a very good start. He felt clumsy and transparent. He wanted to suppress that ridiculous grin on his face, too—not kill it, just suppress it a bit, before she asked him what was so funny. Nothing was funny, really. Though he'd spoken as if he was still teasing her, he had meant it as a compliment. She had of course recognized that it was a compliment; she just wasn't good at taking one. She wouldn't take credit for her beauty, or this either.

He followed her to the stove and stood too close. When she lifted the pot lid, she automatically leaned away from it, but Harlan didn't think and the hot suffocating steam rose rapidly, unexpectedly into his face. He jumped back.

“Godalmighty, I can't breathe!”

He grabbed a newspaper and fanned his face. Suzanne chuckled and reached for a wooden spoon. She hadn't really liked him standing so close, anyway. She hated any­one breath­ing down her neck when she was cooking.

“Well, you are very clever,” he insisted, resuming his subject. Once he began, he hated to lose a train of thought.

Suzanne was studying the spice rack and didn't seem to have heard him. She added some tomato sauce and stirred it in. Harlan licked his lips and lit a cigarette and watched her. If he looked longer or more longingly at the blush of her cheeks or the curve of her breasts than at her hand or at the soup, that was something she didn't have to know. She was only stirring the soup, but she was stir­ring him too.

She had the nicest breasts he could imagine, but he had always imagined that. He knew that he ought not to dwell on it. There wasn't any imagina­tion to it, actually. He knew what her breasts looked like and they weren't that perfect—he liked them because he liked her. Years ago, they used to have these same long daffy conversa­tions in the bathroom while she bathed and it used to drive him crazy.

“Compulsively hip,” he thought uneasily, “that was our disease in 1968.”

That was what he told himself these days, whether it made any damn sense or not. They had all been full of “revolution” back then and endless talk about “freedom”. Now, of course, those things didn't exist at all, or else were everywhere, gutted and co-opted.

“But that's evolution, isn't it?” he thought.

But still, back then, living in Suzanne's spare room for a few months while out of a job, he wasn't so wise. He was young and hip—that is to say, passionate and inhibited. He had leaned against the washbasin each evening and nervously pushed his long blonde hair off his forehead and talked to her, talked ceaselessly, while she took those long slow baths that never made any sense to him. He had always hated being wet. He preferred quick showers. Still, he didn't mind watching her get wet. And, after all, it wasn't as if she waved her nudity around in front of him like a flag—she just didn't hide it. Nor had he jumped in with her; it hadn't been anything like that.

“No,” Harlan thought irritably, pouring himself another whis­key, “that would have been sex, and we were just—free, I guess.”

But still, it was clear that they had loved to talk. Sometimes she had looked at him curiously as if seeing him for the first time and asked if he was really comfortable. He had lied to her, of course, and hated himself for it, though not enough to stop. It crossed his mind now that perhaps those baths had been as pro­longed as they were because she had been as dis­turbed as he was and hoped that he would go away before she had to stand up.

“Maybe that's it then,” he thought. “Ha! The old men are right; wis­dom comes late—mostly when you have no use for it at all.” He was only 38, but the feeling had been creeping up on him more and more often lately that it was too late for a lot of things. His health was failing in a dozen small ways, and he missed those easier times.

She might have felt comfortable about nudity, but he never had. He'd always had to pretend, and it hadn't been “easy” at all. So why did he stay there? “I just like seeing her naked, I guess,” he'd told himself. And yet sometimes he didn't even like that. “God, I really must be nuts!” he told himself now.

But why all this hassle, then or now? She was cute, but nothing out of the ordinary. Why did it have to be her? She was intel­ligent, and she had that wonderful intrinsic beauty of youth—and that was all. But that was all it took. He loved her so much that no one could have been more beauti­ful, and beauty was what he loved. He was in a self‑defeating circle.

Thus, all things considered, her beauty was wasted in the bathroom. Being so near a naked woman who wasn't going to make love to him may have been adven­turous, but it wasn't advanta­geous. A lot of the time, he just felt sick. Even at more innocent moments, with their clothes on and nothing in mind, if she touched him lightly in passing, as friends will, it thrilled him far too much—he couldn't enjoy it. Being in love with her made every­thing she did compli­cated and dangerous.

They had drifted in and out of one another's lives for twenty years now and every time they came together, she was always the right woman in the wrong place or time for him, always bright and desirable in a world full of humorless, dull people. Compared to Suzanne, everyone around him seemed slower than Christmas, duller than untumbled stones. Yet even when she did love him, it was always only as a friend. There had been times, you see, when things had slipped. There'd been three times. But each time they'd slept together, he'd gotten up the next morning madly in love with her and Suzanne went on with her life as if everything was normal. So why in the world had she slept with him?! Did she think he'd been broken and needed fixing?

“She fixed me, all right,” he told himself.

He'd felt inadequate, of course, right in the heart of the matter, except his heart wasn't the organ called into question. Either something was wrong with his brain or something was wrong with his dick, or both. Was it that he didn't know how to make love to her?

“Maybe she wants orgasms by the dozens,” he thought.

Or maybe she didn't want any at all.

Was it only that he'd worn her down, that somehow he'd caught her in a weak moment? Thinking about it made him defensive.

“I think she just fucked me and then rolled over and went back to sleep!” he fumed.

She hadn't been rude about it, no, or very passionate either. Just horribly practical, he supposed. Or perhaps she was passionate; at any rate, she had been very good in bed! Ah, but that only made things worse. Passionate or not, it must have been about as memor­able for her as a game of minia­ture golf—hardly worth discussing once it was over. And in fact she seemed to have forgotten it. But he, no matter how many women he'd known since, or how often she married, or how crazy things got, had not.

“Pass me the salt,” Suzanne said, still tinkering with the recipe.

Abruptly he became aware of her in the present and realized how vividly the past was intruding this afternoon. Sometimes the past was more real than the future, and it made him feel old, as if somehow everything had already happened that was ever going to happen. “This is only middle‑age!” he reminded himself forcefully.

“You're going to spoil the soup if you just keep screwing with it, aren't you?” he said.

“Naa. It's almost impossible to ruin soup. Give me the pepper, too.”

Harlan gave her the pepper, then sat down and watched her mea­sure it out, but the past continued to intrude. He could remember so well those old sensations, those perverse and wonderful conversa­tions in that drafty old house on 15th Street. She'd always left the tap running and the drain plug slightly askew so that her bath wouldn't get cold, and the water had eddied constantly, slowly against her small pale arms and breasts, seeming to caress them, as he wished to. When she leaned forward to offer her lips, it was not to him, of course, but to his cigarette. He held it for her so that she wouldn't get it wet. If her face touched his fingers sometimes by accident, he pretended that it didn't mean anything.

“Bathroom decorum,” he'd told himself. Well, he took what he could get. He was half‑convinced that she was playing a game and half‑aware of his own unstable acquiescence in it, and he felt com­pletely foolish. Yet it was also a game from his side—worse than a game, a terrible self-conscious lie! So how could he fault her? Faulting her was the least of it; some­times he loved her so much that he hated her. He wanted her and wanted her to want him back.

And so he talked, cautiously, rapidly, always furtively watch­ing her and just as furtively looking away, wondering if she was crazy or he was crazy, or if all of it made some kind of sense and he was just being stupid to feel uncomfortable. He liked her too much to do what he most needed to do—pitch a towel over her head and walk out the door.

But that was nearly twenty years ago. Surely none of that applied any more. “We're not as young as we used to be,” he sighed, “and maybe we're not as cruel either.”

All he could really do was guess—there were a lot of things about the past that he would never have the courage to ask her. Perhaps she had merely indulged herself too freely in freedoms that neither of them knew how to handle. Maybe they'd both been crazy; that seemed likely enough. Maybe things could be different now.

“Goddamn it, why do I bother to even think about it?”

They were just friends now. God, how he loathed that phrase! What was so just about it?

“You've always had a delightful intelligence,” he said.

She was leaning over the cook pot, blowing on the wooden spoon. He was blowing smoke‑rings with his cigarette, ostensi­bly paying her breasts no mind. Suzanne leaned forward carefully and pushed back her long brown hair. She licked the spoon and murmured, “No.”

“It's the thing I like best about you,” he said. “Even your good nature is second to that.”

“Thanks, I guess,” she said absently, licking her fingers and looking to see if there were any clean soup bowls. Then she seemed to think about what he'd said and looked at him quizzically.

“Is there a 'but' about to intrude itself here like some kind of rooting hog?” she asked. She knew him pretty well. Harlan smiled with apprecia­tion; he loved it when she turned an odd phrase. He'd have to remember it.

“But,” he said with a smirk and a grimace, “there are factors I don't control, at least I don't think so.”

“Such as?”

“Well, dammit, you are pretty cute, you know—no, you wouldn't know that, would you?—and I have no idea how much less 'cute' you could be and still be a viable object of my lust. At some point everyone—I mean, every man—must finally say, “She's too ugly; I could always be her friend, but—”

“But you could never fuck her, right?”


“Big deal,” she said. “Aren't you aware that women think the same things about you?”

“I'd heard a rumor, but I wasn't sure. I'm certainly glad to hear you say it! Every little bit of equitable villainy helps in this unbalancing battle to fool the object of one's desire.”

“Fool them into what?” Suzanne asked.

“Into a reciprocal desire.”

“An odd way to talk about love,” she told him, though she was used to him talking like that. Suzanne opened one of the cabinet doors, then slammed it and said, “Shit!”

“What's the matter?”

“I don't have any bread. Let's make a quick run to the store; it'll only take a few minutes and the soup's not ready yet.”

They took Suzanne's car. She drove rapidly, smoothly, through the familiar winding hills along Farless River. “Well,” Harlan thought, “she evaded that conversation pretty neatly.” She never did say very much when he talked like that. It was that damned practical nature of hers again, he supposed. He told himself to forget it. Then he remembered what she'd been saying earlier.

“What's all this 'demoralizing' business you were talking about, anyway?” he asked her.

Suzanne grinned, not watching him. She had to concentrate on her driv­ing. There was a sharp curve at the bottom of the hill and she always waited until the very last minute to slow down for it. Even though she'd done it hundreds of times, it still took some concentration. With the curve behind her, she relaxed and seemed to remember him.

“Oh. Moralizing, you idiot. A moralizing chauvinist, you know, is just a man who—who wants what he wants, like every other man, I guess. Someone who makes good excuses and feels virtuous about it.”

“And women don't do that?” Harlan asked.

“Perhaps. Though women aren't as good at excuses.”

“Yeah, I know—they just clam up. I don't know much about a 'moraliz­ing chauvinist', but I think a moralist is just someone who wants everything to turn out even in the end, you know? A search for truth, so to speak. Is there something wrong with that?”

Suzanne lifted her eyebrows and shrugged. She knew how easy he found it to make up philosophy on the spur of the moment, hopping from word to word and connecting one meaning to another with an agility that seemed questionable to her when one was supposed to be looking for “truth”. The truth was never that neat, surely. She sighed and punched a button on the dash and groped around in her purse for a cigarette. A few moments later, her head bent down toward the car's lighter, she heard Harlan yell.

“Uh! I think we're dead!”

Suzanne looked up and squinted, the smoke rising into her eyes. An 18‑wheeler with an enormous pig painted on it was bearing down on them. Suzanne blinked once (Harlan, para­lyzed, thought maybe she was too), then looked down at the lighter with a puzzled expression. For a terrifying moment, Harlan thought she was going to try to fumble it back into the dashboard. When she extended her right arm toward him, he thought she'd gone crazy and was trying to hand the hot goddamn thing to him! Actually she had come to life with a vengeance and was taking the absolute shortest route to ridding herself of this preposterously inconvenient convenience. She threw it out his window.

As it sailed past his head, her left arm was already madly spinning the steering wheel, the tires of her old Kharmen‑Ghia screaming in protest. A split second later, as she swerved back into her own lane and overshot it, she furiously jerked the wheel back again with both hands. The car fish­tailed in the loose gravel several times as she brought it back onto the blacktop. She'd barely avoided the plunge over the embankment.

For a split second Harlan had looked straight down on the top of the trees below and pressed back against the seat, shifting his weight slowly toward the middle. He thought seriously about crawling into the back; if the car was going over the edge, he didn't want to be the first to go. But in fact the whole thing was already over. The big truck thrummed past them so loudly that the little VW chassis continued to vibrate for a long moment like a strummed string on a symphony bass. Still half‑turned in his seat, he felt it in his sternum. And then he caught a glimpse of the sign on the back of the Piggly‑Wiggly truck. Under the circumstances that idiotic happy‑go‑lucky pig‑face seemed frighteningly hallucino­genic to him and he looked away.

Harlan took a deep breath and brushed Suzanne's shoulder with his fingertips.

“Jesus, that'll make your heart beat fast!” he said.

“It didn't exactly slow me down, either!” she said sharply, shrugging his hand off and throwing her crumpled cigarette out the window as hard as she could. How she'd managed to keep it in her hand while wrestling the steering wheel like that, he couldn't imagine. She looked mad, but Harlan realized she was mad at herself, and scared. His own adrenalin still con­tinued to rush.

“God, one of these days, if I live long enough,” she said emphatically, “I'm going to quit smoking!”

“Might be a good idea,” Harlan sighed, and nervously lit a cigarette.

Suzanne was watching the road with care and didn't bother to answer. He waited a few minutes before he said anything else.

“Where is this moralist business from, anyway?” he asked. He could see she was still uptight, but he thought that talking might calm both of them.

“Huh? Oh—it's just something I read last week in that new Austin magazine called Silences, that's all.”

“Oh, yeah, I saw that once,” Harlan said with a grimace. “It looked sort of artsy‑fartsy to me.”

“Oh, for Christ's sake, I didn't write it, I just said I read it!” Suzanne snapped. Sometimes he was just too damned argumenta­tive for her. Harlan decided it would be better to just shut up and ap­preciate still being alive. It wasn't the worst thing in the world.

Coming back from the store, he remembered another ride with her, a couple of years ago. He had given Suzanne and one of her friends a ride home from work one day and the three of them had ended up pressed together like sardines in Harlan's small truck. She was married to her second husband then and Harlan hadn't touched her at all in several years—even their kisses hello had ended by some unspoken agreement—and this involun­tary intimacy just seemed horrible to him. It reminded him too much of when he'd first known her.

“For Christ's sake,” he told himself, “this is eighteen years later!”

As soon as he'd moved the floor‑shift into fourth gear, his hand slipped unintentionally between her knees—nothing indecent, but there it was. His hand rested lightly against her, and her flesh was cool and smooth, supple and inviting. Despite everything he knew about her, he felt that old juvenile thrill. “Jesus, it doesn't feel eighteen years older, it feels eighteen years old!” He felt like jamming on the brakes and grabbing her then and there. Fuck making sense, her friend could get out and walk or sit still and watch, he didn't care! He imagined rush‑hour traffic split­ting and go­ing past his truck on both sides, like water rushing past a stuck log down in that goddamn Farless River of hers! He tried to imagine what she'd say if she didn't say no, but nothing came to mind. He licked his lips and looked at her, but said nothing. The traffic in front of him slowed a bit, and he downshifted into third.

Later in her kitchen, suddenly and appropriate to nothing that had just been said, he started again. “Back to my point—if any: Not every woman has your character and mental acuity. Some women have to figure out how to be attractive without having an iota of character or humor.”

“But I need both—is that it?”

“No, no! Don't get riled. Christ, these “honest” conversa­tions we have are dangerous things! What I'm saying is that you're so attractive that I—I can't always ignore what I feel. I do love you, you know.”

“But you know how I feel about that,” she said.

Harlan nodded and looked grim. Of course he knew. He kept on anyway.

Suzanne tried to kid him into taking about something else. She never felt comfortable talking about love, least of all with Harlan. The world seemed to lurch sideways when he talked about love. Sometimes he was like the feisty old terrier in the back yard, who'd get hold of something and wouldn't let it go. There were times when his sense of humor would let him back out gracefully if she teased him skillfully enough, but this time Harlan seemed to feel more deeply about it and fell deeper and deeper into his own trap. At length, she began to frown. He poured him­self another shot of whiskey and wondered if he was drunk yet. Pro­bably not, even if he did feel overheated and dizzy; that might be something else. Some­times it took all of his courage just to be a fool. That's as good a guess as any why, when he couldn't imagine that she wouldn't find his next words offen­sive, he said them anyway.

“It's just hard to concentrate when I want to fuck you so bad.”

Dear Jesus! As soon as he'd spoken, he regretted it. He'd already opened a door that he knew she would rather close, and now he'd jammed his foot in it. His face flushed, his soul shriveled, he wanted to run away. He lit a cigarette and looked her in the eye as if he could handle it. Suzanne didn't blink either; she was used to this. She shook her head and reached for the Weller's. She poured a drink and looked thoughtful.

“Well, I can imagine that,” she replied with a trace of a smile. “I'm not unsympathetic, you know. But your real problem isn't how much you want me, it's more a matter of how badly you want somebody—anybody, perhaps.”

“Well, not anybody,” he said.

“You know what I mean. Listen, we've been friends for twenty years now and it's been at least half that long since we were close to being any kind of lovers. Those few days of groping at one another like adolescents in heat—and we weren't young even that long ago!—came to a dead halt when you went apeshit and chattered to my husband about it as if it would be good for his character! Ugh! Your near‑betrayal of your best friend and my near-betray­al of my husband—”

“Not to mention our betrayal of ourselves?” Harlan added. There was a sort of smirk on his face, but actually he felt sick.

It had been very odd to him, of course, that so long after he'd made such a fool of himself over her, she'd begun to make a fool of everyone by falling in love with him. For by then, she was married to her first hus­band, Stuart, and she must have seen that everyth­ing would blow up in everybody's face. This time they hadn't even made love, but fooled around idiotically. They met in clandestine places. They flirted and kissed, slowly pulling one another's shirt‑tails out and sliding their hands underneath. Then, pausing just for a moment to speak—to say, “I love you” or else to split hairs about what they both considered highly ques­tionable behavior—they always got stuck in the moment. Like teenagers, they edged constantly toward doing “it”, but always edged back again. They were only in their thirties, but already on the cusp of being too old for such compli­cated romances. Once the cops had caught them “parking” after curfew in Enfield Park, and the incident amused everyone, including the cops, but the laughter didn't last. Soon everything fell apart with a vengeance. Even now, the kindest thing he could call it was Betrayal. Even now, he felt guilty. That Suzanne should bring it up was fair enough, he sup­posed, but it made him feel like a kicked dog and he could sense the other foot being lifted.

“No, not to mention that. Goddamn it.” She paused for several seconds as if remembering what she hadn't meant to remember.

Harlan remembered, too. 1977 just hadn't been a very good year, not even with it's two lucky sevens. Maybe it had all been a last bit of craziness for both of them before the world blew up. But the only world that blew up was their own, and mostly he'd done that himself. But why? Revenge? Or just bad nerves? Maybe it was nerves; Stuart's foolishness must figure in there somewhere. He was one of Harlan's best friends at the time, but sometimes he was such a sappy, trusting guy that Harlan wanted to slap him—”Wake up, wake up!” he wanted to yell. But that wasn't it, either, was it? Had he really thought he was protecting Stuart from him­self? You don't wake people up by pushing them off the edge of a cliff, do you? Well, Harlan might, even though he'd gone off the cliff with the rest of them. After all these years, he still didn't understand it or like to think about it.

“Betrayal!” She almost spat the word. “Goddamn, Harlan, you will never comprehend the horror I went through with Stuart over that! It's too late to trot all that horrible old business out, but you must know that that killed everything romantic between you and me. We were lucky to ever become friends again, don't you realize that?”

“Yes,” Harlan said emphatically, “I do.”

“I don't think our friendship has been too strained since then—even if it has been—strange. Do you?”

“No, of course not,” he smiled. He couldn't remember with certainty just how they had gotten back on a friendly footing. Even that was years ago now, and his memory was terrible, or at least selective. He recalled that he'd run into Stuart and Suzanne on Sixth Street one day, and just as he was about to duck his head and cross the street, they both spoke to him. God knows where such forgiveness comes from, he'd thought, since they hadn't spoken to him in more than a year. Since then, Suzanne had thrown Stuart out twice and another husband besides, and was on her own again. And Harlan had suddenly been tempted to think of her as a woman again and not just a friend.

“No,” she repeated, “not very strained at all, not until now—”

“Now when I talk about wanting to poke you?”

“Yes—exactly. God, what an awful phrase!”

“Life gets full of odd and awful phrases when you go around like an idiot fall­ing in love with every woman you like,” Harlan said.

“Oh, if only that were really true of you, Harlan, you probably wouldn't have any problem! It's your own damn fault if it's complicated, you know. You're the most hard‑headed person I know!” Harlan opened his mouth and then shut it. It was starting to sink in what a dangerous door had been opened.

Suzanne shook her head and added, “I understand that you're silly enough to still love me. Sometimes it's very flattering, I guess. But it's certainly not my fault if you don't get laid enough to keep yourself distracted from me! You never ask enough women out, it seems to me. Love is sometimes more of a dance or a numbers game than you seem to realize. I mean, if you'd try enough partners, you might find one that you like. In any case, you have to keep trying.”

“I guess so. It's always been hard on me that I like certain women when it seems that I don't really know how to just 'like'. Anyway, what should we do now?” Harlan asked.

“Nothing, I suppose. Nothing, I'm sure of it. You may want it a lot or need it a lot, I don't know which, and you have a good deal of my sym­pathy. Because we're friends, of course. But I don't want to sleep with you and I don't want to have to sleep with you.”

“Sure, you're right,” he said quickly, grimacing with embar­rassment. He couldn't quite believe they were talking about this. He wondered why he could never keep his stupid mouth shut when he knew where it would lead. But in fact he didn't know.

“It may sound sort of odd to you,” she added, pouring herself another drink, “but I haven't been very interested in sex for some time now, any­way.”

“You mean, not since the last marriage failed?”


He'd run across this before. Sometimes it seemed that all the good women who weren't already taken had simply given up on sex. The “sexual revolution” had produced some very curious survivors. Could it be, it suddenly occurred to him, that they felt as unlucky as he did and just didn't say it?

“But there's more to it than that,” she added. “It has something more to do with who I am than with who I slept with last, more to do with what I think about myself, and maybe something to do with having passed 40 now and having a grown son who's finally going to leave the house.”

“Oh. How is Willy, by the way? I haven't seen him in weeks.”

“He's fine, I guess. I think that new job of his is going to work out really well. Young men are so strange though—everything so raw and vivid! It's just like what we've been talking about here. He's a part of it, too, always on the throb! I hate hearing my own son doing it! But when he and his friends bitch to one another about their lunatic sex drives—”

“Good grief, Suzanne, you listen to that?”

“Well, the walls are thin. Oh, fuck it, it's my house! Yeah, I listen. I just don't holler at them about it, that's all. Sometimes, it's amusing and sometimes it pisses me off, but I figure a good mother knows what's going on in her house and also knows when to keep her mouth shut.”

“Definitely a new generation of Mom,” Harlan laughed.

“Yeah, sure. Blame it on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”

“What do they talk about?” he asked with interest, then bit his tongue. His curiosity had overcome him for a moment. If she was going to go on opening these unpre­dictable doors, surely he didn't have to nudge her along.

“Well—I don't know. It's the same old thing I've always heard, really, when men thought no one was listening to them. Mostly it happens when they've all come back from a party where none of them had a date and none of them got lucky. Willy and his pals sit around in his room and groan and bellyache about all the women that evening who just weren't “com­passion­ate” enough. Compassionate! You know what they want, of course. They want a mercy‑fuck with no strings attached. They don't want much! Christ, the generations don't change much, do they?”

Harlan didn't quite nod, just sort of tilted his head in acknowledge­ment that he'd heard what she said. He wasn't going to open any doors of any kind.

“If a girl ever does come along who seems to have this kind of crazy com­panionable compassion that you men dream about, or who maybe just happens to need a little mercy at the same time you do, all you do is screw it up!”

Suzanne, a little red in the face now, paused for breath. Harlan swal­lowed hard and kept his mouth shut. Maybe these weren't doors at all through which her thoughts were escaping this after­noon, but Pandora's box.

“Goddamn it, you don't recognize mercy when you get it! You just fall in love with her! Then you get resentful and fall apart because your “good Samaritan” doesn't fall head over heels in love with you too! No, you don't want much—just everything! You want somebody to take pity on you and do you a favor—a mighty personal favor, too!—then you think...oh, hell!”

Harlan nodded solemnly as if he understood. (Well, after all, perhaps he did know—finally—what she meant.) His face burned as he remembered those times she'd slept with him. He felt like a roast on the spit when he thought of all the years he'd spent unable to forget it. He'd been a fool.

“So much for getting what you say you want,” he told himself.

“Sometimes there just isn't any way for a woman to win,” Suzanne said in a persistent tone. She was on a roll, as if she'd repressed saying this for a long time—perhaps to Harlan, perhaps to anybody.

“You guys want to fuck every woman that you see, and then you get upset, distracted, despondent, if an attractive woman refuses to be attractive, or is attractive and yet refuses what she attracts.”

To Harlan's relief, a fly started buzzing around their heads, and seemed to like Suzanne best. He hoped it would distract her from him. She fanned it away with her hand, got the fly swatter off the top of the re­frig­er­a­­tor, and scanned the room with a murderous stare. She hated flies and wouldn't tolerate them in her kitchen.

“Where is that little shit?” she said. Harlan shrugged. The fly had disappeared. “Anyway,” she said, sitting back down, “You're probably the worst of the lot, with all of your intellectual convolutions and preten­sions. You even complain about beautiful women not knowing how to wear their beauty! I've heard you do it, so don't deny it!” Suzanne said.

“Well, I am particular, I guess. Or maybe just bizarre, I don't know,” Harlan sighed. His face was turning red; he knew from her tone that she was going to nail him whether he argued or not and that he might as well stand there and take it.

“If you were only particular, that would be one thing. But, hell, you're so absolutely insanely—!”

“God love you, you little bastard!” Harlan thought. There was that elusive fly again, and it was dive-bombing Suzanne's ear. She shook her head slightly and sat motionless. She held the fly swatter stiffly in her hand; she was frozen but poised, using her peripheral vision to follow the fly's flight path. Clearly, she meant business. Harlan waited too, slight­ly amused, thinking that they might have to wait a long time, these blue bottle flies were pretty fast. Suzanne knew it would make a mistake.

“Patience, my ass,” she muttered.

Harlan understood what she meant. He was glad the fly was there, but he prayed that it didn't land on his head. She'd probably knock his brains out if it did. At last, the fly settled for a moment at the edge of the table. Suzanne's arm snapped down as suddenly as the spring‑loaded backbreaker on a mousetrap. Whap! Harlan flinched, even though he'd been expecting it. With a practiced twist of the swatter, Suzanne flipped the corpse off the table, straight into the trashcan. She ran her hand through her long brown hair, pushing it away from her forehead, and nodded with satisfaction.

“Good shot,” he said.

“No offense, Harlan, but a woman's beauty has something in common with a pile of garbage—it attracts every pest on the block, whether you like it or not!”

Harlan shook his head, slightly mystified. He had still been thinking about the fly and it took him a moment to realize that Suzanne wasn't any more able to turn loose of the conver­sation she wanted to have than he'd been able to turn loose of his.

“Including every stray dog with a hardon?” Harlan said tiredly. It was not really a question.

“That's an ugly way to phrase it, but yes. Something like that, anyway. I've tried deflecting my son from going too far in that direction, but it just doesn't sink into his head. I've pretty much stopped trying now, though; I don't want to ruin my relation­ship with him by going too far myself. All I can do is hope that it's just a temporary condition, some­thing in the hormones, and that Willy will be more sane when he's older. But I'm probably expecting too much. I sometimes think that what it really is, is that something's wrong with the entire genetic structure of the male! Some kind of built‑in stupidity—an auto‑pilot of some kind that nature still thinks you need, even though the present state of human pro­gress doesn't need it at all.”

“I need a gene splice, huh?”

“It wouldn't hurt you,” she said. Then she laughed and added, “Or, even if it did, it might be worth it to turn off that insati­able auto‑pilot you're all flying by!”

“It's not nice to fuck with Mother Nature, though,” he grinned. “Some of this 'auto‑pilot' business is natural biological impulse, you know.”

“Be that as it may,” she said, “we are where we are. I wouldn't be the first one to point out that human evolution has a side to it rather dif­ferent from our animal evolution.”

“And I have to catch up with it? I'm afraid you'll be talking about our souls next.”

“Our souls probably both need a talking to! As for all that other stuff, I don't know, not really,” she said with a shrug and a wave of her hand. “I was just being imaginative, I suppose, and blowing off steam. I guess the short version of it is that all I'm asking is that you keep your passion in your pocket and just be my friend.”

Ah! Just friends. But, yes, that was it, after all these years, wasn't it? Harlan smiled and nodded his head dispiritedly. He admired her phrase about pas­sion (no matter how killing it was) and he believed every word that she'd said, but he still felt how he felt.

“You can live with that?” Suzanne said.

Harlan nodded again.

They both seemed to run out of steam at the same time. Suzanne got up to check the soup and took longer than usual to do it. Harlan got some more ice for their drinks and took his time too.

After a while, he spoke again, but it was as if the alcohol were finally beginning to bleed over from his brain into his speech. “You know, I've hurt that some—same—sort of line before,” he said with a careful slur.

“I imagine you have,” she smiled tiredly.

“I always manage to deal with it.”

“Good!” she told him.

He laughed loudly—almost cackled—and said, “You know, I remember a girl once who told me that she didn't want to fall in love, she wanted to stand in love! It was a fine and noble sentiment, I realized, once I'd figured out what she meant. But it struck me as being suspiciously dis­passionate! I even wrote myself a note about it, and I still remember it—well, more or less. It was something like this: 'A puppy's love is unconditional, and a mother's love unreflective, and God's love is—well, God's love is everlasting! (Those are wonderful things, aren't they?) But if everybody loves you like that, then what, I ask you, what is passion for?'“

“Are you sure you don't have passion mixed up with your wet dreams?” Suzanne said with a grin. Sometimes she liked his speeches even when she knew he was making them up as he went along.

“Well—shit—I don't know! I can't even decide if I'm drunk or sober, much less whether this conversation is comedy, or tragedy, or just a simple act of self‑serving‑preser­vation. Why the fuck am I always trying to fall in love with my best friends and they never fall in love with me?”

“I don't know. Lucky you don't make best friends with men, huh?” she teased him.

“Yes, well—,” he grinned. “Christ, you know what I mean! But it seems to me that I've spent my life watching beautiful women's faces turn to such disappointment when they find out that I'm a different kind of friend than what they wanted me to be. Fuck, it's awful! It makes me look as if I had this ugly rooting little hog of an ulterior motive all along and makes me feel like I'm never go­ing to be taken seriously! I must be an awful shit.”

“The inevitable ulterior motive!” Suzanne laughed. “Yes, I know, Harlan, you are a terrible shit and incredibly selfish, and a bit drunk, too,” she said gently.

“Don't try to get on my good side,” he told her lightly, waving his hand at her as if the fly had returned to life and come after him. His mind was still bearing down hard on the conclusion he was trying to arrive at, though it was taking more concentration than usual to do it. He took a big drink of his whiskey made a face and shuddered; the ice had melted. “Agh, I hate warm bourbon,” he muttered, then shook his head to clear it and re­sumed.

“I wonder—even though it seems as if I ought to know!—whether it's a typical male perspective that passion gills—I mean, gilds a friendship and if—”

“If it's a typical female attitude that passion kills it?” Suzanne in­terrupted.

Harlan nodded, grinning sheepishly. God, how he loved her when she knew what he was going to say! “I'm that predictable, huh?”

Suzanne covered her mouth and giggled hysterically. She quickly put her hand on his arm as if to restrain him and laughed, “I'm sorry, Harlan! I'm not trying to make you squirm, I swear!”

“No, that's all right; I'm used to being an idiot by now,” he shrugged. “If they were handing out medals, I'd probably get the 'Best in Show'.”

“Really, Harlan,” she gasped, wiping the tears from her eyes and trying to stop laughing, “I've never liked you more or loved you less than I do right now! I like it so much when your sense of humor comes back.”

Harlan still felt awkward, but he did feel better. If she could laugh like that, then clearly she didn't hate him, and he hadn't been very sure. Harlan cleared his throat.

“I say all that about passion, by the way, speaking from limited but consistent experience. I've never done a statisti­cal inquiry.”

Suzanne laughed again, but with more control now. “I should hope not!” she told him. She took a long slow sip of whiskey and said, “I wonder how you'd word the questionnaire?”

“I don't know,” he laughed back. “I guess it would be embarrassing to everyone concerned!”

“Precisely,” she assured him with a smile. She sat down and lit a ciga­rette, then looked a little more serious. “And so it is now, even though we've been friends for so long. It's embarrassing to have to withhold kisses from you that you so clearly deserve from someone—just not from me! And it makes me very unhappy to think that you may be getting romantic when I'm merely talking to you. We always have such nice conversa­tions, yet surely it's destructive to the clarity of our communica­tions?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“I don't know what to say. If I don't feel like you do, what can I do about it?”

“Nothing,” he said flatly, “clearly nothing. Yet even this negative conversation excites me, because it approaches the subject even as it averts any culmination or advance. Ha! Do you remember those books we read by Alexander Durrell?”

“Lawrence Durrell,” Suzanne corrected.

“That's right. The closer I get to forty, the worse my memory gets, I guess! Christ, how did we get so old, anyway?”

“I don't know,” she smiled. “I guess it snuck in through the bathroom window.”

“You're quoting Beatles at me, and I'm talking about Durrell. Anyway, I always recall what he said about love.”

Suzanne raised her eyebrows and said, “I believe he said a great deal about love.”

“Yeah, everything except 'All you need is...'“

“Soup!” Suzanne said suddenly and jumped up to check it. She came back to the table and said, “Almost ready.”

“Good,” he said, “I need something to go with this drink.”

“I imagine you do!” she said. “How many does that make?”

“Fewer than yours, I think.”

“Yeah, but I'm a better drinker than you are,” she said.

“I know you are, but I've got more brain cells left. Listen, do you want to hear my Durrell quote or not?”

“Are you sure you have enough brain cells?”


“Let's have it then,” she grinned. She knew how he liked to quote.

“Let's see now. Okay, I've got it. 'What is to be done when one cannot share one's own opinions about love?'“

Suzanne looked startled. Somehow she'd forgotten that one. But she knew what it meant.

“Nothing,” she answered in an unhappy voice. “Nothing, I'm afraid.”

As so often in the past, her honesty devastated the insistent stance Harlan had taken. “Suzanne's an awfully good friend,” he thought with a sigh, and that was some help, after all. She had her virtues, as he had his—well, one or two, anyway! He knew all that, though he suspected that he'd gotten too drunk for it to matter. In a sense he felt more des­per­ate, fool­ish, morose, and aroused now than ever.

“Patience, my ass,” he thought grimly. There was precious little virtue in this sort of virtue, as far as he could see. But still, if he loved her? She had sounded so unhappy for both their sakes, and he hated that.

“Sometimes maybe it's better just to lie a little,” he thought. He had reached the other side of truth—his truth, anyway—and felt compelled to say something. But what?

“There's always soup,” he said aloud, smiling idiotically.

“Oh, God, that's right!” she said, and jumped up.

She turned out the fire and moved the pot off the burner. When she began to make a clatter with the bowls and bread platter, he thought for a moment that he should get up to help her, then blew it off. “Fuck it, I'm drunk,” he decided.

“Watch out, it's hot!” she said, setting the steam­ing bowls on the table. Harlan looked carefully at the bowl. He pushed the vegetables around with his spoon for a while, then looked at Suzanne.

“Maybe I don't know what women are for,” he said dispiritedly.

“Maybe you don't know what friends are for,” she coun­tered.

“Maybe we're both right.”

“Always looking for the last word, aren't you?” she grinned.

“Yep. But maybe I've got it right this time.”

“Maybe you do, but—”

She was interrupted by Dali jumping up on the table. “Oh, crap, Dolly, how did you get in here? No wonder there was a fly in the house!”

Suzanne rushed off to find what door or window in the house was open. The cat gave her backside a cool conceited look (as if to say, “I can walk through walls!), then tiptoed straight toward Harlan.

“Watch out, Doorknob,” Harlan muttered, but Dali came on any­way, and performed his fluffy‑tailed pirouette with the usual grand finale: he stuck his ass in Harlan's face. While Harlan leaned back, wishing he had a fork instead of a spoon, the cat sniffed the soup, then sneezed. Suzanne's soup was heavily peppered.

“That's nice,” Harlan said with an icy smile. “Nice little kitty,” he said softly while slowly, uncertainly, reaching for Dolly's tail.

Suzanne walked in and whisked the cat to the floor. She sat down on the edge of her chair and tapped her forefinger on the cat's nose, nodding at it as if they were carrying on a conversation. The cat watched her fin­ger closely as if he was thinking of eating it, then complained noisily and tried repeatedly to jump in her lap. Suzanne tried again and again to get her soup spoon to her mouth and finally lost patience with Dolly.

“You don't even like soup, stupid!” she said, and light­ly slapped the cat on the head with the fly swatter. Dolly cringed for a moment, then seemed to think better of it and moved out of range. Harlan was startled, even by this gentle remonstrance. Suzanne's patience with the cats was usually infinite. It must be the whiskey, he thought. Braincells gone to hell in a soup cart. Bread cart. Handcart!

“Maybe you do have it right, Harlan,” Suzanne said, turning back to him, “but that's no reason not to eat your soup. Try it, it's good.”

Harlan frowned. He'd lost track of who she was talking to or what she meant. Right about what? Did he or didn't he like soup? “How drunk am I?” he wondered. “Oh, God, the Weller's ate the last of my braincells!”

“I don't know about this,” he said, shaking his head.

“What don't you know?”

He shook his head some more and wrinkled his nose at the soup. “That ass­hole cat of yours just blew his nose in my bowl!”

“Oh, for the love of God, Harlan, nothing's perfect!” she laughed. “Just shut up and eat your soup!”


4th draft: 02/03/07
©1988 Ronald C. Southern