Book 1: LeRoi
The MG overheated, blew a radiator hose was all, I hoped. By some stroke of luck it happened within a mile of a remote service station on the desolate highway. It had to be pushing a hundred degrees outside when I coasted into the station. The wind was beginning to pick up as the branches swayed and the leaves rustled in a lone oak tree that was rooted twenty feet opposite the barbed wire fence in a dry grassy field just east of the station. Across the street was a diner. That was it, a service station and a diner plopped right in the middle of nowhere. Dry hills rolled off in all directions from this bumpy, worn out highway running east and west, connecting similar sparse settlements like a dot-to-dot game along this landscape that was leading me home.
It’s harder than hell to get a mechanic to look at an MG. They know that checking the oil can make the back bumper fall off, the mechanic getting the blame. The wrench at the service station said he couldn’t look at it until after lunch, said it needed time to cool off. Guess I needed the cooling off time, too, so I headed for an iced tea and lunch at the diner across the highway, if it looked safe.
The diner had a gravel driveway with a couple of old telephone poles laid out about ten feet from the front door and two plate glass windows that made up the front of the faded white building. The west corner had been damaged by a wayward vehicle, the remnants of the past having lived on, un-repaired. The telephone poles must have been an afterthought to protect the diner from the potential of another run-in.
I opened the door and walked in, my presence announced by the un-oiled creaking hinges. Without looking around, I walked to the coffee counter, slid into the end seat next to the cash register and ordered an iced tea with lots of ice. The woman in the booth behind me must have been immune to the non-smoking section that she was sitting in—I wasn’t.
“Excuse me, I wonder if you could put your cigarette out?” I asked, assuming she knew that it was a non-smoking section.
She ignored me. A few minutes later she lit up again and set the just lit lipstick-coated Virginia Slim into the slot of the amber ashtray. I stood up, walked around to her booth, grabbed her pack of smokes and the ashtray and walked out the front door. I dumped the ashtray and stepped on her lit smoke. Then, I dropped her pack and stomped them as well, and walked back inside.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” she asked, sliding her pink polyester two-ton ass out of the booth.
I slammed the empty ashtray down on the coffee counter and sat down looking straight ahead. I could feel her breathing over my shoulder.
“Lady, you don’t want to find out!”
That was enough for her. The remnants of ‘spoiled little bastard’ could be heard as the door swung shut.
A petite pony-tailed brunette walked up with the iced tea pitcher to refill my glass.
“Can I have some more ice please?”
“Sure,” she answered, turning to the ice machine behind her and scooping a glass full while I admired her finely proportioned hindside. “I’m sure Flo will be out in a minute,” the brunette said, as she turned around with the ice.
“What does she want?”
“You’ll have to ask her yourself.”
Flo walked up behind the sweet little brunette. “Sarah, could you catch that back booth with some decaf?”
Flo wouldn’t have been half bad in her day. She could have passed for Sarah thirty years earlier. She wore very little make-up behind her black-rimmed reading glasses that rested about halfway down on her nose and were clipped to a strand of cheap miniature pearls that hung around her neck. Her eyes were hazel with bluish flecks, and she had long straight brunette hair held up in a clip. She had the gray that accompanied a fifty-five plus year old woman. She was tan, trim and took care of herself, in spite of her age. She wore cotton pants and a simple uniform-type, button-up-the-front blouse. She looked like a boss-lady should look—in control.
I waited for Flo to go first.
“Hi,” I answered, before taking a swig of tea.
“Purdy hot day, huh?”
“I can stand the heat. It’s the stray cigarette smoke that sets me off.”
“So that gives you the right to run off one of my regulars?”
“I asked her to put it out.”
“Did you ask her or did you beat around the bush with some rude indirect comment?”
“Lady, I really don’t need any more crap today.”
“Well kid, right now you’re in my diner, and you’re runnin’ off my patrons . . .”
“Oh great,” I muttered.
“I’ve dealt with your kind for years, so let’s just cut to the quick.”
I’d run the weak one out the front door, but this one wasn’t going to scare off quite as easily. Guess it would be pretty hard to throw the queen out of her own palace.
“Look, lady, I’m sorry if I offended anybody here, but I’ve got some problems. My MG is broken down across the street,” I said, knowing that the mechanic waiting for it to cool would have come up with a pretty damn good excuse for not being able to work on it by the time I returned.
“Besides that, I keep playing telephone tag with Janie, one of my lady friends.”
Flo stood there and stared at me dumb-founded.
“It’s her birthday this Sunday, and I need to get her address to send her a birthday card. Jenny’s coming this weekend and I won’t be able to sneak a phone call to Janie. Well, I probably can get that done, but . . . Anyway, things just aren’t falling into place today.”
“Would you like some chocolate milk little boy, or how about your ass wiped?
I just stared at this piece of work as a shadowy figure looked on from behind the kitchen window.
“Yeah, you heard me. In this cafe the world doesn’t revolve around you.”
“I don’t expect it to,” I flashed back.
“As a matter of fact, for you, I think it has a way of stoppin’ all together. There’s not a waitress in the world, let alone any other woman, who will ever live up to your demands. We just can’t sit in front of you all day waitin’ on or guessin’ your every need, demand, or desire.”
“You heard me Mr. Needy-Never-Enough who thinks the world ought to revolve around him. It never has, and it never will. Besides, gettin’ around doesn’t sound as if it’s a real problem for you anyway.”
“What do you want?”
“Get over it.”
“Get over what?”
“Bein’ a helpless little boy trapped in a grown man’s body.”
“Wha . . .”
“Your kind stumbles into this place all of the time. Grow up. Get over it,” Flo interrupted.
“Get over what?”
“Feelin’ sorry for yourself and shruggin’ your crap off onto some woman with a cigarette or any other woman for that matter.”
“It was a non-smoking section!”
“I’ll bet you’re one of those that doesn’t like to be told NO.”
“No I’m not.”
“I’ll bet that great big word NO pierces your heart every time you hear it.”
“You think I’m too sensitive?”
“I think you overreacted. Had you given her a chance, she’d have put out the cigarette.”
“She lit up a second smoke after I asked her to put the first one out.”
“Did you ask her to put it out a second time?”
Standing up, I reached into my pocket for a couple of bucks, threw them on the counter, stumbled out of that beehive, and then walked back across the street to check on my car.
I only went in there for a goddamn glass of iced tea and to try to unwind. Now I had this self-righteous mama trying to tell me how to act. Who in the hell did she think she was anyway? And how in the hell did it go from me not putting up with used cigarette smoke to me not respecting women? That’s all I needed, another run in with a die-hard feminist who felt responsible for defending the rights of all womankind. God I hoped my MG was up and running.
“How do things look?” I asked, standing a few feet back, not wanting to take up too much of this guy’s space.
“What did you find?”
“Well your radiator has troubles for starters, and it either has to be repaired or replaced.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad. Why can’t we run it down to the radiator shop and get it worked over?”
“What radiator shop you have in mind?” he asked, cocking his head back, pulling off his glasses and then crossing his arms over an embroidered name patch that read ‘Okie’.
Great, a mechanic with an attitude: they loved being needed—made ’em God. God was wearing a pair of dark blue coveralls and was pushing sixty. His graying sandy-brown, Brill-creamed hair was combed back and parted to the side. When he looked at me, his left eye drifted away in the opposite direction. Obviously, this glass-eyed son-of-a-bitch who couldn’t see straight liked to argue.
“I don’t care which one you use. Who’s the quickest?”
“None of ’em are the quickest because we ain’t got one.”
“So what do you do for radiator repairs?”
“Send ’em out.”
“Can’t we just drive it over to the next town?”
“No, we can’t just drive it over to the next town because there ain’t a repair shop in the next town either, and because I’m the only one here. This is the only gas station fifty miles in either direction. I can’t just up and leave.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“I’m gonna pull the radiator, clean it to make sure it is repairable, and ship it out.”
“UPS, and they’ve already been here today, so cool your jets kid. Besides, that might not be the only problem. Your water pump has a leak and as dry as you ran this little hot rod, it wouldn’t surprise me if you cracked the head.”
“Hell, I was less than a mile from here when the hose blew. How could I have a cracked head?”
“Son, I don’t break ’em, I fix ’em, and this one’s not gonna get fixed overnight. If I were you, I’d make sleepin’ arrangements. It’ll be at least a week before I’ve got your radiator back and whatever other parts I’ll have to order.”
“Hell, I haven’t got a week. I got a girl coming to my place for the weekend.”
“Well, maybe you better think about havin’ her meet you here.”
“Mister, I live in California. There’s no way in hell she’ll drive twenty hours for a weekend roll in the hay.”
“Well kid, looks like you’ve just had a change in plans. I can fix your car, and I’ll get it out of here as quickly and inexpensively as possible, even if you are one of those impatient hotshot Californians.”
“So that’s as good as it gets, huh?”
“That’s as good as it gets, and you might as well start trustin’ me right now. You don’t have much choice. You can tow it to the next town, but you know as well as I do that not many mechanics will even pop the hood on this British tub to check the oil. Count your blessin’s, I’ve owned a couple myself. I’ve had plenty of practice wrenchin’ on these moody critters.”
“Fuck,” I thought, but kept it to myself. “All right, any suggestions on a room?”
“I’d see Flo across the street at the diner. She runs the place, lives upstairs and usually has a room to rent.”
“What other possibilities are there?” I asked, realizing that I’d been fighting with my new landlord and had yet to even fill out an application.
“If that doesn’t work, I might be able to set you up on a buddy’s cattle ranch, but the accommodations won’t be nearly what they are across the street, plus you’d probably have to work and you don’t appear to be the type that likes to get too dirty.”
I wanted to stomp the cocky old man’s little toe along with the rest of his smart-ass self, but I needed him just like I needed Flo across the street. It was time to shut up and start kissing both of their asses. While waiting to cross the highway, a semi roared by, leaving me in a whirlwind disarray to match my frustration and anger that was rapidly turning into helpless despair.
Days like this caused me to question why I had left my hundred thousand dollar a year company job selling tractors. I always had a new Chevy extended cab Silverado that drove more like a touring sedan than a pickup truck. I had traded it all just to be able to sleep in as late as I damn well pleased and for the freedom to do business on my own terms.
I walked back in and sat down at the coffee counter. Sarah was scooping some more ice. I watched her until she turned around and then shifted my gaze to the daily special board.
Fish and Chips with a cup of clam chowder for $4.50, tea or coffee included, had been scribbled in pink and blue chalk on the blackboard. Friday in Five Points was just about the same as anywhere else.
“Yeah, I’ll try the special.”
“Yes, please, with . . .”
“Lots of ice,” Sarah interrupted.
“You got it. Is Flo around?”
“She’s upstairs. I can call for her.”
“Only if she’s not busy. I don’t want to bother her.”
“I’d say you’ve all ready done that.”
“I’m sure of that,” I said, feeling like a fool for having argued with the woman.
“Can’t see what a little more could hurt. Let me get your soup and then I’ll go after her.”
There was no changing the past, even if it was only twenty minutes earlier. There wasn’t much of a choice. Okie was right; I wasn’t into punching cattle. A few minutes later Flo walked back up to the counter.
“Well, look who’s back for dessert,” she said with a smart-ass, now-I-gotcha, grin.
“Okie across the road says you might have a room for rent.”
“Sounds like Okie across the road had more bad news than just that. Things got to be pretty shitty if you’re back here for a room.”
“Yes ma’am, I suppose you’re right about that.” I answered, wanting to tell her to fuck off in the worse way.
“Why does this not surprise me? Okie’s always stickin’ me with your kind. Guess it isn’t his fault that guys like you always end up broken down in these British sports cars that you try to run away from life in.”
“Lady, I know it seems I’ve left what little courtesy I have back at home, but I really would appreciate your help.”
“Yeah, I got an extra room. Sarah will show you upstairs when you’ve finished lunch?”
“To the non-smoking room?” Sarah asked with her back to me facing Flo. They both broke out in a giggle.
“Guess we’ll have to try to be nice to him,” Flo said, as she turned from Sarah to me.
“How much for the room?”
“I don’t know yet. Depends on how many more of my patrons you run off.”
Order Book 1 of The Chronicles of a Wandering Soul at the Fisher King Press Online Bookstore.