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And the Young Devour Themselves




Be sure to bookmark where you pause reading, so you will find your place easily

CHAPTER 11
A Pause in Baton Rouge

They finally reached the outskirts of Baton Rouge shortly past midnight. Linc said, “Do y’all want to break out the tent, or do you want to look for a place to stay?”

“Are you out of your mind?” said Dan. “We’ve got the better part of five thousand dollars, and you think I’m gonna be jammed in some ol’ tent with you? You’re really slipping this time, Linc. That tent of mine is an absolute last resort. I’m not sleeping in any tent until we’re flat broke. What do you say, Jamie?” Dan appealed to Jamie hoping she might conjure up Linc’s chivalric side.

She said, “I’d like to find a place to stay, too--nothing fancy. It’s kinda spooky here, and I think I would get pretty scared. It would be different if we were on the beach and there were a lot of people around. It’s up to you guys, though; I’m just glad to be along.”

That should do the trick, thought Dan. He was waiting for Linc to yield, and the surrender wasn’t long in coming. Linc said:

“Well, then, Jamie, I say let’s go find a decent place to stay.”

They found an old motel with a vacancy, and they pulled into the parking lot. Everyone got out of the car and stretched their legs a bit. Linc led them around the complex to check in at the front desk. Jamie hurried up to him and thanked him for allowing them to stay in a motel instead of in Dan’s tent. Linc remarked to himself about a change that had come over Jamie. She was revealing her sweet nature more and more of late. He liked it.

When they reached the office, Linc held open the door for the other two. A yellow bug bulb on either side of the door lent an unpromising idea of what a room in the place might be like. On a wall just inside the shroud of yellow light was a sign showing a cartoon pelican--the name of the establishment: The Pelican. The place had seen more prosperous days. Still, it looked good to Jamie and Dan. And though he would never admit it, Linc was hoping the place had soft beds.

The nighttime desk attendant was an old man. He was dozing in front of a small, blank television screen. The walls of his limited office space were adorned with illustrations rescued from obsolete calendars of long ago--landscapes, seascapes, birds on the wing, freckled children, and so on, all of them browning with time. Dan marched right up to the counter and pounded on the bell, completely wrecking the total silence of the place.

“What the hell!” roared the old man, startled from his slumber. “What the goddam hell!” He glared up at Dan, who stood there innocently, his hand poised to ring the bell a second time if he thought it necessary. “What’s wrong with you, boy, scaring the life out of an old man like that? Who raised you that way?”

Because the old man had a lethal look in his eyes, Dan drew back his hand from the bell. “We’d like a triple,” he said.

“A triple?” asked the man.

“That’s right,” said Dan. “And hey, could you make it snappy?”

The old man laughed. He said, “All the rooms are the same, Charlie.”

“Well, in that case, what all’s included?” said Dan.

“Two beds, a TV, and running water.”

“We’ll take it,” said Linc, moving up beside Dan and sliding the bell to the far end of the counter.

“Hold on, Linc,” said Dan. Dan turned back to the clerk and said, “We’d like a room with a view, mister.”

“Hmm. . . . Awright,” said the man. “What would you rather look at, the parkin’ lot or the gas station?”

“The parking lot, I think,” said Dan. “Unless the gas station is really something to see,” he added with curiosity.

“Oh, it ain’t much to look at,” confessed the man.

“Then I think the parking lot would be better,” said Dan. “Is there any extra charge for it?”

“Oh, no. We throw that in.”

“We’ll take it,” said Linc, longing to put his feet up somewhere.

“That awright with you, too, Charlie?” the man asked Dan.

Dan said he supposed it would have to do. At least he had got them the parking lot view.

“Got any money?” asked the man.

“Have we got any money?” Dan said importantly. “He wants to know if we have any money.”

“Well, do ya?” asked the old man, unimpressed.

“Yeah, we’ve got money, mister,” said Dan.

“I’m gonna need to see some of it.”

Dan turned to Linc and said, “Linc, old chap, this old gentleman would like us to go through the unseemly formality of showing him our money beforehand.”

“Yeah, I know, Dan,” said Linc. “I’m standing right here, aren’t I?”

“How much is it, sir?” asked Jamie from her position behind the boys.

“Twenty-two bucks a night.”

“Each?” said Dan.

The man laughed. “Each room,” he said, “not each kid.”

Linc had carefully hidden in the car all but fifty dollars; he showed the man the fifty.

“Room 112,” said the man. “Ground floor.” He handed Linc a key.

They went around for the car and drove slowly through the shadowy parking lot until they found room 112. They were able to park right outside their door. When they were inside they found out the old man had been honest with them: there wasn’t much more than two beds, a television set, and running water. There were no drawers, only a small closet. The place appeared clean enough, though, and would do for one night. They went back out to the car to get what things they needed.

Back inside, Jamie asked the boys if they would mind if she took a quick shower. Linc said, “No, go ahead.” “Me next,” said Dan. Jamie took a few articles from her suitcase and then went into the bathroom.

Linc sat at a small writing desk and put his feet up on one of the beds. Glancing around the room, he thought the desk clerk had failed to mention one amenity the room had to recommend itself: an oil painting depicting a shrimp boat just in from a busy day of harvesting the ocean. The deck of the boat was alive with a few bustling men handling nets and sorting shrimp, while the captain stood by idly, checking his pocket watch, the thought of lending a hand to help his crew never entering his mind. Suddenly Linc didn’t like the painting so much. “See if you can pick up a game, Dan,” he said.

“There aren’t any games on this late,” Dan replied, inspecting the minuscule closet, finding it void of even one hanger, useless but for stowing their bags.

“Then see what’s on.” Linc wasn’t usually so bossy; he was just that tired.

Dan switched on the television and clicked through all the channels. “Nothing . . .” he said. “. . . We’re not even getting one single channel. . . . I’ll wring that ol’ guy’s neck! Twenty-two bucks for a busted television set.”

“It’s probably because we’re too close to the ocean,” offered Linc.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

“I think it’s supposed to have something to do with it,” said Linc, fighting to keep his eyes open.

“Oh, that’s brilliant, Linc; real scientific. Thanks for that stirring explanation. Too close to the ocean. Christ, it’s not like the ocean is right across the street or anything.” Then, opening the curtain for a quick look outdoors, Dan added, “You see any ocean out there?” Having said that, Dan started beating the top of the television: still, nothing. “Man, he oughtta knock five bucks off the price of the room. You be sure and remember to tell him why you only pay him seventeen bucks, Linc.”

Soon Jamie came out of the bathroom; she was brushing out her freshly washed hair. She had put on some cutoffs and a fresh shirt. She was all prettiness and simplicity.

Dan was ready to let down his guard. He suggested to her she go for a walk with him.

“All right,” she said. “Do you mind, Linc?”

“No. Y’all go ahead.”

It struck her she was rude for not having asked Linc to join them: “Would you like to come with us?” she asked.

Linc was about to say yes, but when he saw Dan’s please don’t expression, he said, “I’m tired from driving all day. I’ll go ahead and shower while you’re gone. You two go on.”

So after Dan reminded Linc to rinse out the shower when he was finished with it, he and Jamie went out and leaned against the front of Linc’s car. The hood was still warm, almost hot. They stood there side by side for a few moments, both of them wishing the other would say something.

Finally Jamie said, “It’s a nice night: so warm.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty nice--kinda sticky, though. I guess it’s nice if you like it kinda sticky and warm.” said Dan.

Jamie had expected something rather more romantic than that. She looked up at the heavens. After noting her fine neck, Dan followed her gaze. “Saying your prayers, Jamie?” he asked.

“Really I’m just watching the stars. I love a night sky.”

He lowered his gaze from the firmament to her lovely profile, so like a cameo in that darkness. She turned her head ever so slowly, as if she were taking note of each tiny, shimmering star, committing them all to memory. A dog howled in the distance--another victim to the singular stellar canopy.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Dan. He wanted to reach out and touch her cheek and move her head around so she would be facing him, but he didn’t act on it.

“I’m thinking I feel like I’m a part of something bigger than I was a part of back at Pete’s. I think I feel the way a prisoner feels when he gets out of prison. I’m also thinking about how lucky I am. You and Linc couldn’t have come along at a better time. But speaking of prisons . . . Dan, I had this terrible dream last night. I dreamed that I was in prison, and that all I had in the cell with me was this fine, beautiful piano--it was so beautiful, I was afraid to touch it. Anyway, I asked the guard how long I had to stay in that cell. He told me that was up to me. I asked him what he meant by that, and he told me I would be free to leave whenever I learned how to play that piano. Well, I went right to work on it. I kept thinking about all the time I had wasted that I could have used to learn how to play it back when I was afraid to touch it. Dan, I couldn’t learn how to play it. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t do it. One day I saw myself in the mirror and discovered I had been trying to learn how to play that piano for so long I had turned into an old, gray-haired woman. And that’s when I woke up. . . . I don’t mean to go on and on about it, but it was so realistic. Besides, Dan, you asked what I was thinking. . . . Do you want to know what else I was thinking?”

He nodded. He had found her dream very interesting, and he was paying close attention.

She said, “I think I’ve finally learned how to play that piano.”

Dan let that sink in for a moment, then he said, “Jamie, do you mind if I ask you something personal?”

“Please,” she said, finally leveling her moist, sparkly eyes on Dan’s, brushing with the back of her hand her slightly perspiring forehead.

“What’s different about you? You’re not at all like that girl at Pete’s house.”

“Oh, you mean what happened to the performing Jamie?” She looked serious--so much so, Dan thought she had grown angry over his question. He said:

“Uh, yeah.”

“She’s back there, 500 miles away,” she said, pointing one direction and then, to correct herself, pointing another. “I feel like a different Jamie, a different person. Since you and Linc came by to get me this morning, I’m full of . . . I don’t know . . . anticipation, I guess you could say. I’m just loving all this. I know all we’ve really done, so far, is drive down a couple of long roads--and this might sound stupid--but I’m filled with joy. I could just burst.”

She took Dan’s tense hands into her own. She looked shy after she looked down at their joined hands, but she didn’t release her grip.

Her taking his hands like that made Dan’s heart soar. Her hands were soft and warm. He wished a bolt of lightning might seek them out and bronze them together that way forever, but he knew there wasn’t a cloud above, only millions of pitiful little stars and a puny moon, all of them trying in vain to compete with Jamie’s charms.

“Listen Jamie,” said Dan, “all day I’ve been praying: Please, God, don’t let Jamie be bored. So I’m glad to know you’ve been having a good time.”

“You’re sweet, Dan,” she said, applying pressure to his hands.

“A lot sweeter than Linc is.”

“And so funny. How long have the two of you been friends?”

“Me and Linc? Since kindergarten. Really, I can’t remember us ever not being friends. I liked him that first day of school. . . . I remember I was the first one in the classroom. It was the biggest classroom you ever saw, Jamie--big and empty. It was so big, I felt like a midget in there. I thought that there would be about a thousand kids in that class, and that I wouldn’t know any of ‘em. My mom walked me in there, but she had to get to work, I guess, so she left me there by myself. I was getting a little scared in there, and then the door opened, and there was Linc and his mom--but he was always Lincoln back then: Lincoln Lebeau. He looked real brave when he walked in, because he wasn’t even holding his mom’s hand--I tried to get my mom to hold my hand when we walked in there, but she wouldn’t because I had some gunk on it and it was all sticky. I thought he must be a pretty nice guy for his mom to want to stay with him like that. I liked him right off.” Dan snapped his fingers to show how quickly he had taken to Linc. He then found Jamie’s corresponding hand and held it. “You know, we even became blood brothers at your lake.”

“You’re lucky to have a friend like that. I’ve always been pretty much a loner.” She drove her statements home to him with another squeeze of the hand.

“Well,” said Dan, “I know of two friends you have, anyway.”

Jamie smiled and asked him if he thought Linc liked her. She said it was hard to tell sometimes, because Linc was so quiet and always seemed to be thinking.

“I hate to admit it, but it was his idea for you to come with us.”

“Did you try and talk him out of it?” she teased.

“I wouldn’t lie to you, Jamie. It made no difference to me whether you came along or not. I just wasn’t gonna let Linc go off by himself, because I knew he’d screw something up and probably wind up in a big mess. But now that I know you better, let’s just say I’m glad it isn’t me and him looking up at those stars tonight.”

Hand in hand they walked to the front of the motel, where the light was better--yellow, but better. Dan spied a Dairy Queen down the way and across the street. “Jamie, did you have enough to eat today? We didn’t have anything but junk after that fried chicken.”

“I couldn’t eat anything right now. My stomach feels kinda funny.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes . . . I think it’s from talking to you,” she said, laughing shyly.

“Oh, great; I make you sick at your stomach,” he said with heat. “Well, join the club, Jamie. Why should you be any different than everybody else? Like I even care what you think about me. You can--”

“No, Dan. . . . It’s a good feeling.”

Dan pretended not to get the nuance of what she said. It was easier to pretend he was hurt than to face the panic and hysteria of believing she (or anyone else, for that matter) might actually like him. “My stomach feels fine. I’m going across to get a Coke,” he said, avoiding the situation.

Not knowing if she had messed things up, or if he expected or wanted her to walk along with him to the Dairy Queen, though she would have liked walking along with him, she stayed put. Dan was back in ten minutes with his soda. He came walking up, his face bent low over his drink, secretly watching her from beneath his eyebrows.

They stood watching the occasional car pass. A breeze had begun to lessen the heat and was gaining strength. Not liking the way Jamie was staring at him, Dan slid his back down the wall and knelt beside her.

Hoping to lessen their mutual uneasiness, she said, “Can I have a sip?”

He handed her the cup. He glanced up and watched her move the straw to her lips. She mistakenly thought he was monitoring how much she drank: “Just a little sip,” she assured him. She took her sip and handed back his drink.

Another uncomfortable silence.

There was a problem: Dan had very slight experience with girls. Though he had been with a few girls--even Jamie herself--it was always for one reason only. He had never felt anything special for a girl, never anything romantic or lasting, nothing that could have any long-term effect on him if things didn’t work out right. A typical example of the constancy of his passion would be his recent and now long-forgotten love for his barber; in fact, if he were asked that barber’s name, he wouldn’t be able to recollect it easily. For Dan, there had always been some temporary girl to replace the last temporary one.

He knew he was behaving peculiarly toward Jamie, but he was at a loss as how else to conduct himself. He figured he was supposed to act as if Jamie had slighted him, so that’s exactly what he did. After all, Dan had seen that kind of sport between boys and girls--a boy or a girl pretending to be hurt or offended, and then their seemingly enjoying the row and misunderstanding caused by that pretense. Some couples become so adept at it, it takes the place of all intelligent conversation. Yes, Dan had seen that kind of thing many times before, and now his actually having a hand in such nonsense made him feel disgustedly insincere. He would prefer always being sincere with Jamie.

Jamie knelt down beside him, her bare knees on the ground. “Are you mad at me, Dan?” she asked softly, smiling, her eyes searching his.

Her question found the core of Dan’s heart. He said, “Oh, Jamie . . . never. . . . Listen, I haven’t been around a lot of girls--I don’t know why, I just haven’t. Please don’t laugh at me for telling you this.”

“I’m not laughing, Dan. I’d never laugh at you.” She leaned her head toward his. She could hear the heavy exhalations from his nostrils.

“It’s just that I’ve--I’ve never felt this way--I--”

“What way, Dan?” she whispered, interrupting him. She was aware his words were coming with difficulty, and she was trying to get him to pace himself.

Dan tried to regain control of his voice, of himself. There were broad tears standing on his lower eyelids. He wanted to wipe them away, but instead clung to a hope that she hadn’t noticed them. Then they fell; only two drops, but he knew they had given him away. She took his hands onto her lap. She watched him, waiting for him to find his composure. Finally, he sniffed and smiled slightly, a please don’t tell anybody about this smile.

“What way, Dan?” she repeated.

“Like I want to take good care of you,” he gasped.

She caressed his cheek lovingly. “You’ve done a pretty good job so far--you and Linc,” she said.

“I just don’t want to miss anything, Jamie. . . . If you’re brushing your hair behind your ear, I don’t want to miss it; if you’re looking up at the stars, I don’t want to miss your reaction to them; if you sneak over to tell the man with the motor home that you appreciate his looking out for us, I want to hear your sweet voice say it.” With his shirt front he dried his cheeks.

She regarded him quietly for some time. Though her heart thundered, her expression remained serene. “I’m not going anywhere, Dan.”

Just then the night clerk stepped out of the office and stood before them. Jamie and Dan rose to face him.

“There a space out here for me?” asked the man, hoping he wasn’t making an unwanted intrusion.

“Hello again,” said Jamie. “We were just talking and enjoying the night.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty out here at night, isn’t it? I like to come out for a cigarette some nights. I don’t really even smoke ‘em anymore; it’s just that I miss this one sometimes, the one I always had at the end of the day. I just can’t quite seem to quit this one. Hey--you kids smoke?” he asked, offering his pack. His old hand trembled badly. They were harsh, filterless cigarettes he had grown accustomed to as a youngster.

“Oh, I don’t want one, thanks,” said Jamie.

“No, thanks, old-timer,” said Dan.

The man turned to the wall and shielded his match from the wind while he lit his cigarette. He drew deeply on it and kept the smoke down in his lungs for several seconds before releasing it through his nostrils. He said, “You kids aren’t in any trouble, are you?”

“No,” said Dan. “We’re going to Florida.”

“School’s out, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Florida, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Got a place to stay out there?”

“We’re going to be camping on the beach,” said Jamie.

“Lot of kids do that, I guess,” said the man.

“You ever been out there, old-timer?” asked Dan.

The old man looked at him strangely. “Florida?” he said, as if he couldn’t believe anyone could ask such a question.

“Yeah,” said Dan.

“Nope. I like it fine right here.” The man puffed his cigarette, Jamie inching away from him so the smoke wouldn’t settle in her clean, damp hair; but with the wind gusting as it was, there was little chance of that happening. Dan asked him if he lived in the motel.

“Nope.” The man laughed. “I got me a trailer not far from here. This is only a small place--old, too, so they can’t rent out all the rooms, because a lot of them are rundown.” (Hearing this, Dan was tempted to tell him about the state their television was in, but thought better of it and kept his mouth shut. He wanted the old man to leave him alone with Jamie, so he hoped to keep the conversation at a minimum.) “So, no, I don’t live here. No, I only work here nights, sleep a little in the mornin’s, and try to fish some in the afternoons. It’s not a bad deal, not bad at all. . . . Wind’s pickin’ up,” he said, as a paper cup rolled in an arc toward their feet. “Won’t rain, though.”

“How do you know that, old-timer?” asked Dan, suspecting all older people of having special, and often dark, powers.

“Get to be my age, you just know.” The rising wind seemed to single out the tip of the man’s cigarette: it blew it orange.

“Tell you what,” the old man continued, “y’all come out in the mornin’, and I’ll feed you fish for your breakfast.”

“That sounds good to me, you old thing,” said Dan.

“Where’s the third of you?” asked the man. “Old fifty-dollar Bill?”

“Linc?” said Jamie. “He’s back in the room, taking a shower.”

“Yeah,” said Dan, “he got pretty seedy on the way here.”

The old man tossed the remainder of his cigarette on the ground and was just about to step on it when the wind found it and sent it rolling swiftly into the corner formed by the concrete walk and the building. He swore, and kicked at it with his pointed boot toe until he was convinced he had extinguished it. “See you kids in the mornin’,” he said. “Your friend’s welcome, too.”

“What time?” Jamie wanted to know.

“Any old time. I’ll be around. Just stick your head in the office and holler.” He took off his cap, nodded at Jamie, and left them.

“Jamie . . .” said Dan.

“. . .Yes?”

“I was just wondering. . . . In that dream you had, when you looked in that mirror and saw that you were old, were you still real nice and pretty?”

She laughed and said, “What do you think?”

“I think you probably were--I mean, you were probably real old and everything, but I’ll bet you still looked kinda nice and pretty.”

She laughed again and said they should be getting back to the room.

Dan and Jamie went back to the room and discovered they had left the door unlocked. “Hope nobody has carried off Linc,” Dan joked, but then was relieved to see Linc asleep on one of the beds. Hearing the other two stirring around, Linc was startled out of his sleep. “What’s it like out there, Dan?” he asked.

“It’s warm, windy, and dark out there, Lincoln. It’s getting downright spooky out there. Jamie thought she heard a ghost whisper your name out there, Linc, so we ran back inside. Only you didn’t say it was a whisper, did you, Jamie?”

Not knowing how Dan would like to have her respond, Jamie threw up her shoulders and hands. She realized this was the first time she had been invited to take part in one of the boys’ dialogs.

“No, Linc,” Dan continued, “Jamie said that ol’ ghost ‘moaned’ your name: Linc, Linc--sorta like that, but a lot spookier.”

As often happened, in trying to frighten Linc, Dan had only managed to frighten himself. He went over and made sure he had locked the door. Linc knew Dan’s little joke had backfired, but he said only, “Why don’t we just back up, Dan, and pretend like I didn’t ask you what the weather’s like outside.”

Linc got out of bed and tried the television again: still no luck. He wished the other two would start thinking about turning out the light and going to sleep. It had been a long day.

Dan said, “Hey, Linc, the old grouch who rented us this quaint little suite of rooms has invited us to break our fast with him on tomorrow’s morn.”

“Are you serious?” asked Linc.

Peeling his shirt off and walking away, Dan said, “Yeah. Well, I’m off to shower.” He did an about-face, grabbed his duffel bag, and dragged it into the bathroom, locking the door behind him as a second barrier against any ghosts without the devil-given capability of passing through locked doors.

As soon as he heard Dan’s shower water running, Linc asked Jamie if she had a nice walk with Dan.

“Real nice, Linc.”

“Good. Now what’s this about the desk clerk?”

“He says he has a trailer near here, and that he wants us to come and eat breakfast with him in the morning. He said you can come, too.”

“But why?”

“He’s just a lonely, nice old man. He’s going to make us some fish--catfish.”

“For breakfast?” Linc was dubious of the man’s intentions. He said, “No chance of him being some kind of crazy murderer, I hope.”

“Linc, you sound just like Dan. The man must be seventy-five years old. . . . Speaking of Dan--”

“Yesss?”

She was silent a moment, then said, “I don’t know how to put this so it doesn’t come out all wrong.”

Linc waited. She was trying to phrase a question in her mind. Knowing better than she what her question was going to be, Linc sat preparing his response. Finally Linc broke the silence:

“You’re wondering if Dan is all there, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” She exhaled the word with a gust of breath. “Not crazy or anything . . . just--”

“Different?” Linc said evenly.

“Yes.”

“Jamie, Dan is the quickest, sharpest person I ever expect to meet. He just doesn’t know how to act around people sometimes. Are you also wondering about some of the things he says and does?”

“Yes,” she answered. She thought it strange he read her thoughts so easily.

“Dan says and does all those things because he’s one of a kind: there’ll never be anyone else quite like Dan Blair. With Dan, everything is spontaneous, everything he says and does. It would take anyone else a million years to come up with some of the things he comes up with in the snap of a finger. You know what else he is?”

She shook her head.

“He’s the best friend a person could have. It might take a while for you to see it, but beneath his rough exterior, he’s loyal down to his bones.”

She was tempted to tell Linc that she had seen that softer side of Dan, but she thought it might be too sentimental for Linc. She didn’t think for a minute that Linc would make fun of Dan if she told him what all had transpired out in front of the motel, she rather decided that it was too personal, and that hearing it might make Linc uneasy. So she kept those moments with Dan to herself, close to her heart, pure and undiluted by sharing.

Linc began to expand on Dan’s social ineptitude, but he heard the shower being turned off, so he grew silent. Linc hoped he would have another opportunity for another discussion with Jamie about Dan. He wondered if, in Jamie’s eyes, he had even begun to do his friend justice. Jamie was impressed by Linc’s tribute to him.

Dan didn’t come out of the bathroom for a good while; Linc figured he was in there preening, for Dan was meticulous about his hygiene. He always used his pocketknife to clean underneath his nails after showering, and then he always took forever flossing his teeth. It was a ritual bordering on obsession. Linc tried to go back to sleep, but Jamie was disturbing him by squirming beneath the covers of her bed, thrashing around like a netted beast.

Linc said, “What are you doing over there, Jamie?”

She didn’t answer right then. In a couple of minutes she got out of her bed and said, “Look.”

Linc turned on his elbow and saw her standing there. She wore a white, old-fashioned nightgown, the hem of which swept the floor. It was tied off by a bit of lace halfway up her throat. She was radiant and clearly very pleased with herself.

“You look real nice, Jamie.” Linc couldn’t help smiling at her expression.

“Thank you. Pete never let me wear anything like this . . . to bed. I sent off for it in the Penney’s catalogue.” She looked down at herself as a child might at some favorite new toy. She smoothed her nightgown down in some places and seemed to be off in some other pleasant world of her own.

“Just real pretty, Jamie, real nice.”

“Thanks, Linc.”

He watched her crawl back under the covers. She lay on her back smiling, her fingers interlaced behind her neck.

Dan finally came out of the bathroom. Something was different about him: he was wearing pajamas. Seeing that Linc had taken one bed and Jamie the other, he said, “All right, who gets me?”

“No way, Dan,” said Linc, who was facing the wall and didn’t even bother to turn around and look at Dan. Dan glanced toward Jamie and then quickly back at Linc.

Jamie sat up in bed. She said, “I’m sorry. I guess I just thought that you and Linc would . . . I can pile up some stuff and sleep in a corner.” She hurried out of bed and stood there looking so pretty.

Dan said, “That bed’s yours, Jamie.” Even for the sake of his own comfort, he wouldn’t put a girl out of her bed. Then, turning to Linc: “Come on, Linc.”

“I was here first,” said Linc, still addressing the wall. “Why not go see your friend at the front desk about getting you a cot?”

Dan said, “Oh, swell. I think this is all just fine and dandy. Of course, I didn’t drive, so I’m not entitled to a nice bed to sleep in. No, I get to jam some dusty old cot into the corner and try and sleep with this sore back of mine. Just great, just great.”

Dan stood there waiting for some kind of capitulation--none came. His ‘sore back’ routine hadn’t, it seemed to him, worked in months. He said, “Well, can I at least borrow your bathrobe, then?” He reached up under his pajamas shirt and scratched his stomach.

“What for?” said Linc.

“Because I don’t want to have to get all dressed again just to go see the damn clerk!”

“Gee, Dan, I didn’t think I’d be needing my bathrobe, so I left it back home. It’s back in my closet, hanging next to my tuxedo--Oh, no, Dan! What if you feel like dressing for dinner tomorrow?”

“You’re real funny, Linc--did you know that? Yeah, you’re just hilarious. This is all just great. Damn your blood, Linc!”

Dan huffed to the bathroom and slammed the door behind him. He had to get dressed again. He wasn’t really so angry with Linc: the boys were only crabbing at each other the way they often did; and this time, it was done partly as entertainment for Jamie’s benefit. She knew them well enough by now to know what they were doing.

Linc and Jamie could hear Dan grumbling to himself in the next room (they were supposed to), but they were unable to make out what he was saying. Jamie covered up her head with her sheet and tried to prevent herself from laughing.

When Dan came out of the bathroom, he walked over and stood beside the door. “Guess what, Linc?” he said. He sounded cheerful. Jamie peeked out from under the covers.

“What?” said Linc.

“I’m taking your shoes.”

Hearing that, Linc let out a howl. He bolted out of bed in order to rescue his shoes, but he was too slow: Dan was already out the door and running full speed to the clerk’s office. Because he was dressed only in his underwear, Linc couldn’t pursue the chase. “Damn!” he said. “I swear I’ll kill him.”

Jamie was laughing wildly. “What’s so bad about his taking your shoes?” she asked.

“He has bad feet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he has really bad feet--they’re ugly, real ugly--everybody knows that.”

Jamie kept laughing.

Dan’s toes were wider at the tips than most people’s. While the average person’s toes are pretty much the same width for their entire length, the tips of Dan’s toes were so wide, if he ever happened to show the bottom of them, one would almost expect to find there little suction cups like one finds on the toes of certain tree-climbing frogs and other such critters. The thought of that made Linc shudder. In reality Dan’s toes were only misshapen when he and Linc were young boys. Linc had only seen them once, and he was so affected by it, he had never since let his eyes rest on Dan’s toes. In the meantime Dan’s toes had tapered off to where they resembled anyone else’s.

When Jamie finally quit giggling, Linc said, “Anyway, that’s why he’s not getting in that bed with me. No way.” Linc realized he was standing there in only his underwear, so he got back in bed and under the covers.

When Dan walked into the office, the old man was beginning to nod in his chair. Dan rapped the bell sharply.

The old man nearly fell out of his chair, but he was able to retain his balance. His wide eyes shot to Dan, and he dragged his hand down his face in recognition.

“Dammit!” he said. “If you do that again, I’m gonna run all of you clear off the place, do you hear? What’s the matter with you, boy? Don’t you have any sense at all? You about made me jump clean out of my shorts.”

“Sorry,” said Dan. “I only wanted to be sure you heard it.”

The old man mumbled something under his breath as he stood up from his chair. He approached Dan, took the bell, and placed it in a drawer beneath the counter.

Dan said, “How about one of those rollaway cots, old-timer?”

“A cot?”

“Yeah. How about wheelin’ one around to room 112? And make it quick, will ya? I’m really beat.”

The man shook his head. He said, “This ain’t the Howard Johnsons, son; we don’t have any cots.” He folded his arms across the counter and waited for Dan’s response; he figured it would be a good one.

“Twenty-two dollars, and we can’t even have a cot!” Dan was trying to appear at once wise of the world and shocked. “What are you trying to pull, you old devil? You already stuck us with a busted television set, and your sign out front says there’s a television set in every room--I just read it.”

“That sign say anything about the set workin’?” The old man thought that was quite funny, so he chuckled. “Listen, son, I’d let you have a television from one of the other rooms--even drag it to your room myself--but I can’t ‘cause we’re full up. Anyhow, you got two big ol’ beds in there: you can sleep with your brother or your girlfriend.”

“Jamie gets her own bed--and he’s sure not my brother. . . . Mister?”

The old man raised his eyebrows to show Dan he was all ears.

“You ever heard of lumbago?” Dan asked.

“Yeah. You got it, do you?”

“Something awful--Oh, there’s a twinge right there,” said Dan. For effect, he reached around for his lower back and grimaced pitifully. “I’m never good for much of anything when I’m down in my back--Oww! there it goes again. Whew, bless my heart.”

“I’m sorry to hear all that, son. Looks like you’re between the devil and a hard place--because like I said, we don’t have any cots.”

“Not a single one?”

“Nope. Not a single one on the whole place.”

“You don’t know how much I hate to hear you say that. I guess I’ll just have to get by somehow. Night, old-timer.”

“Night, son. Don’t y’all forget to come around in the mornin’.”

Dan walked slowly back to the room, grumbling softly as he went. He liked his sleep, and he figured sleeping in a motel room without a bed of his own wasn’t much better than sleeping on the hard ground in his tent. He considered how even cavemen progressed to finer sleeping conditions than those; after all, he thought, weren’t cavemen always portrayed as sleeping rather soundly on thick bear rugs or some other such luxury? He damned Linc again. Once inside the room, he unceremoniously kicked Linc’s shoes off his feet; they thudded against the wall. Linc and Jamie ignored him. He went back into the bathroom to change back into his pajamas.

Soon he came back out and began to pace the floor. He was thinking about those cavemen again, and about how soft they had it way back then. Just let any one of those sissy cavemen try walking a mile in his shoes, he told himself, sneering at Linc over in that soft bed against the wall. He was sure that had Linc lived back in those caveman days, he would have hogged all of those bear skins for himself.

On he paced. He didn’t seem to want to talk to anybody, but after a while, said, “Come on, Linc.”

“What?” said Linc.

“Let me in there with you.”

“Thought you were getting a cot.”

“The old blister said they didn’t have any--so scoot over.” He put one knee on the bed.

“No way, Dan,” said Linc, rolling over onto the side of the bed nearest Dan, shoving away the trespassing knee and taking up as much of the bed as possible. He looked up at Dan and started laughing. He said, “What’s that you got on, Danny?”

“They’re called pajamas, Linc,” said Dan, his face turning a dark red. He looked over at Jamie to see if she was going to make fun of him, too, but her head was beneath her sheet. If he had looked more closely, though, he might have noticed her sheet twitching, betraying her laughter.

“Well, they’re real fancy, Danny,” said Linc. “I’ve never seen you in your jammies before.”

“Oh, shut up. I knew Jamie might be coming along, so I . . . well . . . ”

“Yeah, just real fancy, Danny. I wish I had a pair like that myself.”

“It’s better than being here in my drawers, like you.”

“Dan, is there any chance of you hushing up so we can get some sleep around here?”

“Yeah, I’ll hush up. I’m just gonna curl up in this nice hard chair over here.”

“Come on,” said Linc.

“What?”

“Get in.”

Dan got in with him.

“Now you better be real still, or else you’re gonna be sleeping in that chair over there,” Linc warned him. “And if any part of you accidentally creeps over here to my side, I’ll smother you with your own pillow.”

“I’ll be real still, Linc. Still, and quiet as a mouse. You won’t even know I’m in here.”

“Shut up, already.” Within minutes the three of them were asleep.

Next morning, though he could have lingered there for hours, Linc was first out of bed. As quietly as he could, he put on some fresh pants, socks, and shoes. Bare to the waist, he stepped outside to see what the weather was like. It was a few minutes before seven o’clock, already warm and thick. He sat on his car until he felt awake. Past the parking lot, on the far side of the road running there, was an old man doing his daily perambulation. He carried a staff and, due to the quiet of that new morning, could be heard trying to clear his throat from where Linc sat.

Linc went back inside and saw Dan yawning and stretching in bed. He could hear Dan’s joints popping. Linc then leaned over Jamie: she slept soundly. He whispered: “You ought to come look at this, Dan.”

“Shut up and leave me alone,” grumbled Dan, a chronic slow-starter.

“Shhh,” said Linc. “It’s Jamie,” he added, singing and whispering her name.

That was all Linc needed to say to kindle Dan’s interest. Dan whispered, “What is it?”

“Come on over here and see for yourself.”

Dan staggered over to the side of Jamie’s bed where Linc stood. Linc pointed at the sleeping girl. She had kicked off her covers and was sleeping on her side, curled up in a tight little ball, a faint trace of a smile on her lips.

“How do you like that?” said Linc. “She looks just like an angel when she sleeps. Now who would’ve ever guessed it?” he added sarcastically. He stepped away so Dan could move into his place by the bed.

Dan knelt on the floor and moved his face as close to Jamie’s as her sleeping would allow. He knelt there letting his eyes focus. The first thing he saw clearly was how soft her black hair looked against the dim white pillow. He allowed himself to touch that hair, but it was so soft, he couldn’t even feel it against his fingertips; he could see it move, though, and that made him smile. Then he took in the rest of the entrancing profile made softer by the poor light. Holding his own breath, he listened for her breathing. “Be still, Linc,” he whispered. He felt her easy, deep breathing; he could feel it against his cheek. His heart raced.

“She must be dreaming about me to be sleeping that good,” whispered Linc.

“Hush up, Linc,” said Dan. “Shhh.” Emboldened by her sleeping so soundly, he moved in still closer. He turned and whispered, “She might kill me for it, but I gotta watch her until she wakes up.”

Dan tried to get comfortable where he knelt as if before an altar. Linc moved to the other side of the bed and looked down at the smiling Dan. He then left the two alone and went and sat down in the chair, careful to face away from them. He stayed in the room only because he was curious as to what Jamie’s reaction to Dan would be when she finally woke to find him surmounting her that way. Linc figured Dan had either a kiss or a cuff coming, so he didn’t want to miss whichever Jamie chose to bestow upon him.

With Dan so close and focusing all of his attention on her, it wasn’t long before Jamie began to stir. Still lying on her side, she extended her top leg and pointed her toes; then her lips parted with a barely audible smacking sound. She opened her eyes to narrow slits and then frowned, not immediately recognizing the shadowy figure hovering so near her face. When she did recognize him, she smiled broadly just for Dan. She rolled over on her back, crossing her arms beneath her head. “Good morning, Dan,” she said quietly.

From across the room, Linc said, “Good morning, Jamie. Dan was just saying how you look just like an angel when you sleep, and now you go and wake up before I even get a chance to see for myself.”

“I don’t believe that,” she said sleepily. “He won’t even say good morning to me.”

“Maybe he’s dumb-struck,” said Linc. “Wouldn’t that be a nice change?”

She said, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” Dan touched her hand, and she interlaced their fingers.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“About seven-twenty,” said Linc.

Finally able to say something, and remaining true to his stomach, Dan said, “Are we gonna go eat with that old guy?”

“I don’t care,” said Linc, though he would rather find a place where they could get a quick breakfast and be on their way.

“I think we should,” said Jamie. “We said we would.”

So they brushed their teeth and got dressed. Then they packed their things in the car and went to find the old man.

They found him sitting outside the office. He had his back to the wall, his shirt unbuttoned to his stomach to catch some sunshine. He had been waiting for some time; and if he hadn’t heard their boisterous conversation as they were rounding the corner, he would have been caught nodding off.

“Mornin’, old-timer,” said Dan, as the three friends stood over the man. “You off the clock?”

“Mornin’, kids. And yes, I am.”

“Seen a newspaper, mister?” asked Linc.

“I seen parts of one.”

“Astros do anything last night?”

“I don’t keep up with ‘em, son,” said the old man. “Listen, though, Billy has a paper inside there.” He jerked his thumb toward the office door. “You can have a look at the baseball pages for yourself.”

Linc disappeared for a few minutes inside the office. He introduced himself to the younger day clerk as one of the youngsters with whom his colleague would be having breakfast that fine morning. Busy with the comic strips, the fellow didn’t mind sharing the sports section. Linc found the box score he was interested in, scanned down, found Bob Watson’s statistics, refolded the paper, and slid it back down the counter to its owner. The fellow was engrossed in his comics, but he did acknowledge with a nearly imperceptible nod of the head Linc’s taking his leave of the office.

“Astros do anything?” asked Dan, when Linc rejoined the others.

“Not much,” said Linc. “They lost eight-nothing.”

“How about Bob Watson?”

“Two for three.”

“Well, that’s something, anyway,” said Dan, trying to cheer the devoted Astros fan. Dan knew that the outcome of the Astro game--and more importantly, Bob Watson’s performance--would have somewhat of a bearing on Linc’s mood that day, for it always did. If Linc was in a good mood, and Bob Watson had a good game, Linc’s mood would be that much better; however, if Linc was a little cranky, and Bob Watson had a poor game, Linc would be that much crankier.

The old man got to his feet and said to Jamie: “You are the prettiest thing. Just look at you. Are you married to one of these rascals?” As if in the presence of the queen, he took off his cap. He gloried in her youthful loveliness and wished he were fifty years younger.

She wore the cutoffs she had worn the night before with Dan, and a cool-green tank top; with her rich suntan, she did look particularly fetching that morning. She thanked him and told him, no, they were all just good friends.

“Hey, you old fraud,” Dan addressed the man, “I thought you said you were gonna put on a big fishfry for us this morning, but here you stand, jabbering.”

“Why, I’ve been sittin’ right here waiting for you all mornin’, and now you come draggin’ up, half the mornin’ spent, wondering where’s your fish. Billy and I been discussin’ about whether or not you three skipped out without payin’. Billy said that if you hadn’t skipped out, then it was just a disgrace, you sleepin’ the day away when there’s fish to be tasted or hooked.”

“Mister,” said Linc, “we’ve got a long drive to make, so we really don’t have time to do any fishing.”

“Got time to eat some fish?” asked the man, putting back on his cap and pushing it back on the crown of his bald head.

“Now you’re talking,” said Linc, pleased to know they wouldn’t be losing too much time.

“Well, y’all go on in and pay for your night, then we’ll all go get fed. Go on, now.” He waved them away.

So they went in and paid and then went and piled into the man’s battered, rusty old pickup truck; Jamie and Linc up front with the man, Dan rattling around in the back with a bunch of old soda cans and a flat spare tire. The man raced out of the exit, turning, at a good clip, onto the road, sending Dan careening against one of the walls. Then Dan, hanging on for dear life to the wall of the truck against which he had collided, leaned up by the man’s window and hollered, “Slow down, you old lunatic!”

They made a short drive down the paved road which ran alongside the motel, and then another short ride down a shady gravel road, and then they turned off that road, up an incline leading to a sleepy trailer park, where they came to an abrupt stop just before running into the man’s trash cans, sending Dan’s head sharply against the back window of the truck. Dan leaped out of the truck and raced around and flung open the man’s door, demanding, “What are you, some kind of a nut! You could’ve killed me!”

“Take it easy, Dan,” said Linc.

“Yeah, son,” said the old man. “I was just teachin’ you about ringin’ bells at all hours.”

Dan mumbled something about the knot that must surely be forming on the back of his head, and he left it at that, telling himself he better keep a close eye on this man.

The man’s trailer was on a slightly elevated plot of land between two other similarly nondescript mobile homes. There was a variety of shade trees in the little park and a thickly wooded tract across the road. An old graying dog dozing beside the old man’s steps didn’t even bother to lift its head from its lazy snooze in acknowledgment of the three strangers. There was a cockatoo whistling from its perch in a cage directly above the dog’s head, lending an incongruousness to the whole scene.

“It ain’t much, but it ain’t too bad a deal,” said the old man, as he unlocked the door to the trailer.

Jamie said, “What’s your bird’s name, sir?” She lingered by the cage, her face up close to the bars.

“That’s Goldy. He’s yellow, all right, but that’s no name for a bird. Don’t call him much of anything, mostly.”

“Will he bite?” she asked.

“Try to, if you get too close.”

She took a step back from the cage, peering intently into the bird’s eyes, the bird increasing the level of its harsh squawk against this intrusion upon its privacy. Then the bird hopped from its perch to another one hanging in front of a small, round mirror streaked with filth. This sudden movement shook some empty sunflower seed cases floating down onto the head of the sleeping dog. The dog only rolled over on his side and got more comfortable, and the spent shells fell off accordingly.

“Aren’t you afraid somebody’ll steal him?” asked Dan.

“Him? Ha! I wish somebody would carry him off, but nobody ever comes out this way. Who’d want him? All he’s good for is eatin’, and scarin’ away fish. Look here--” he said, as he turned the cage around. He showed the kids that the door to the cage was open. “I’m hopin’ he’ll run off. He comes outta there sometimes, but he always finds his way back home.” The man didn’t dislike his bird as much as he would lead the kids to believe. In fact, on a scrap of tightly rolled paper tied around the bird’s leg could be found the bird’s name and address and all the unlikely things he enjoyed in his diet. And when the passage of time and the bird’s scraping and worrying had worn to shreds that identification tag, the man would carefully craft another one, as he had done several times before. He even kept a running list of things he discovered that the bird liked to eat. He only gave that bird free run of the place because he knew it would always return. The man wouldn’t know what to do if he didn’t have that bird around to pamper and curse.

The man turned back to the door. He said, “Like I said, it ain’t much.”

“I think this is just real fine,” said Linc, having walked around the perimeter of the trailer. He admired most the painstakingly neat garden patch he found behind the trailer, with its straight rows of tomato plants and okra plants, and the walkways between them, all free of weeds, due to the vigilant tending of the owner.

“Well, git in,” said the man, sweeping his arm inside the trailer, indicating the children were to lead the way.

But for a stack of fishing gear piled up beneath the pass-through serving bar opening to the kitchen, the trailer was surprisingly tidy. In the middle of that stack was a wooden shadowbox lying on its back, its forty-eight cubbyholes each filled with at least two fishing lures. All the worn furniture was made newer by gaudy slip covers.

After giving the boys time to admire his fishing tackle, the man said, “Come on back to the kitchen. I want to show you something.” The boys tore themselves away and followed him and Jamie into the kitchen.

Pointing to a batch of fish beside the sink, the man said, “Caught, cleaned, and froze yesterday; thawed out this mornin’.”

Linc said, “Where’d you catch that mess, mister?” He leaned over the fish and took a sniff of them. They still had that icy smell mixed with fish flesh.

“Oh, a little place I know,” said the man. Then Jamie asked him what kind of fish it was.

“Why, it’s Mister Whiskers: genuine Louisiana catfish. And there’s plenty more where this come from.” The old man smiled broadly. He was enjoying himself.

“Listen, you old thing,” said Dan, “I’m about starved. Any chance of you frying it up in the not-too-distant future?”

“Oh, I’m itchin’ to do just that, son. You all clear out of here now and have a look around the place. I’ll holler when it’s good. Won’t take long, either; not the way I fix it, it won’t.

“One thing, though,” he continued, “I’ll have no more of that mister or old-timer crap--My name’s Hi; it’s short for Hiram Alexander. You all get on out now. I’ll holler.” He shooed them toward the door.

The youngsters walked outdoors. After another fruitless attempt by Jamie at befriending the bird, they walked across the road to explore the woods. Jamie suggested they walk parallel to the road so they wouldn’t get turned around and lose their way. (Due to a lack of traffic, the youngsters didn’t realize that they were in a small but densely vegetated rectangle of woods surrounded on all sides by dirt roads beyond which lay, in other clearings, other mobile homes and frame houses. But for all these city children knew, that great, black forest went on forever.)

Dan picked up a stick and began whacking trees they walked past--a noisy activity quickly put a stop to by Linc, who snatched the stick away and broke it over his knee. They found a recently fallen tree and sat on it and talked, mostly about the beach, until Hi called for them.

Sure of her way back, and just for fun, Jamie began running for the trailer as soon as she heard Hi call. Dan thought she had heard a snake or something, and with fear heightening his adrenaline, in one fluid motion, he was standing atop that tree trunk, certain he was safe there as long as that snake wasn’t a climber.

Linc hadn’t budged. He sat there looking at Dan standing beside him on that tree trunk. “Whatcha doin’, Dan?” he asked.

“Man, the way she took off running like she did, I thought she saw a snake or something,” said Dan, jumping off the trunk. He was embarrassed about showing his cowardice, adding, “Don’t tell Jamie about it.”

“Okay, Dan,” said Linc, for he would never tell on Dan. “Come on. Let’s go eat.” The two of them took off running.

Jamie reached the trailer first, naturally, even though she had quit running when she saw the boys weren’t running after her. Hi said, “Where are those two pokey boys?”

“I think they’re lost in the woods,” she teased.

“Lost! Why, there ain’t two acres out there.” He shook his head at what boys had come to these days. Just then the boys appeared through the trees and stepped into the road.

“You should’ve stuck with her,” hollered Hi, putting his red arm around Jamie’s shoulders. “Why, she’s a regular scout.”

They all went inside, and Hi served them each a heaping plate of catfish and a glass of cold milk. “Heh, heh. Good, ain’t it?” he observed, once they had all sampled his catfish.

“Umm,” Jamie agreed. Linc, his mouth full, could only nod his head. Dan was too busy eating even to hear the question.

When he’d washed down his bite, Linc told Hi he should open a fish stand. Then Jamie asked Hi how long he had lived there.

“Baton Rouge, twenty years; Louisiana, all my life.”

Linc always had to know the nitty-gritty of what people did for a living. He would feel better about his future if only he could find more careers and trades that interested him. “Always run a motel, have you, Hi?” he asked.

“Lord, no. Worked in the forests up north thirty years, cuttin’ timber. Hot, sweaty work it was, I’ll have you know.”

“Did you like it up there?” asked Linc.

“Wasn’t too bad--not nearly sweet as this, though.”

Linc asked, “What was better, Hi, cutting timber or running that motel?”

Mr. Alexander wasn’t eating. He was standing above them. He crossed his arms and reflected for a moment on what Linc had asked him. He said:

“Well, I near broke my back cuttin’ timber--and I wasn’t very well paid for it, either. On the other hand, runnin’ that motel isn’t doin’ much of anything, and I’m just as poorly paid. But to answer your question, this is a whole lot sweeter situation I got for myself right now. I just figure if a man isn’t being paid a whole lot of money one way or the other, then he ought to be doin’ just as little as possible to earn his little bit. Especially since the ones makin’ all the money in this world aren’t even doin’ the little bit of work that the poorly paid man does. Took me thirty years to learn all that, but by golly, I did; it’s called economics.”

Linc sat nodding his head while the old man gave his answer; he found himself agreeing with what he was hearing. He was tempted to write down all of Mr. Alexander’s imparted wisdom, but that would mean neglecting the delicious catfish. Then he had the paradoxical sensation of remembering that he never forgot anything, so there was no need to take notes.

Having finished his fish, Dan said, “That was the best fish I ever had the pleasure of, you old--Hi.”

“That ain’t nothin’. Some of the old women around here can put my stuff to shame. Not too bad for an old inn-keeper, though, if I do say. Just you wait until my okra comes in, and then see what I can do.”

Linc said, “How old are you, Hi? I mean . . . as long as you don’t mind me asking.”

“I’m seventy-seven.”

“Whew!” said Dan. “I knew you were old, but I didn’t know you were that old.”

“Jamie here had you figured for eighty-seven,” said Linc.

Jamie flushed crimson and said, “I did not, Mr. Alexander. I said I thought you were seventy-five.” Then, turning to Linc: “You’re horrible, Linc. I’ll have to start watching you like I do Dan.”

Mr. Alexander was amused rather than insulted. He went around the table and refilled the youngsters’ glasses. He said, “So, what’s in Florida that we ain’t got right here in Baton Rouge?” Linc replied that they were just seeing some of the country and were looking forward to spending some time on the beach.

“All summer long?” asked Hi, feeling unnaturally inquisitive because he liked these children.

“Maybe all summer,” said Dan, “and maybe even longer. You see, we’ve burned our bridges.”

“How ‘bout you, missy?” Hi asked Jamie, certain an angel like her couldn’t have much of a past. “You burn your bridges, too?”

“I don’t feel like I have,” she said reflectively. “I feel like I can go back home if I want to.” Jamie considered it strange that, when she thought about going home, she thought about returning to her parents’ home instead of to Pete’s. The relative appeal of the two places was now inverted in her mind; her parent’s house--her own home--had achieved pre-eminence.

“So you’ve all run off?” said Hi, as if something had just dawned on him. He usually minded his own business, but he couldn’t help asking these leading questions.

“Yeah,” said Dan. “Ol’ Linc got his girlfriend pregnant, and he thinks running away will be better for the kid. He’s only trying to do what’s best for the kid, that’s all.”

Hearing Dan reveal that, Linc’s eyes darted toward Jamie. She was looking right at him. He was unable to read what her expression meant, but he was sure she was disappointed in him. It was the first she had heard of Clare’s pregnancy, and she was more surprised by it than anything else. Jamie wasn’t easily shocked. She felt no ill will toward Linc.

“It wasn’t that way at all,” asserted Linc. “Her father doesn’t like me. He was always talking down his nose to me.” He glared at Dan, who lowered his face to his empty plate, regretting what he had said, because it was plain that Linc was angry.

“It’s your business,” said Hi. There was nothing new under the sun to shock a man of seventy-seven.

Linc thought Hi was silently judging him. He wished Dan hadn’t opened his big mouth.

Dan had stepped over a boundary, a boundary that had never, in so may words, been set by the two boys, but one beyond which, instinctively, the boys never stepped. They could tease and embarrass each other, but only up to that boundary, not beyond it. Dan had gone too far, and they both knew it.

Linc was so uncomfortable sitting there. All he wanted now was to get back on the highway, so he started dropping clues to that effect. And, taking Linc’s cue, before long, everyone was up from the table and headed for the door. Anyway, the tension between Dan and Linc, and Linc’s imagined tension between himself and Jamie, himself and Hi, had stopped any and all breakfast conversation.

Back outside, Hi said, “Let me make you up some sandwiches for your lunch. I got more here than I can ever eat.” Jamie asked him if he thought sandwiches would keep in the hot car.

“You got a ice chest?” he asked.

“Only a small one, and it’s pretty full,” she replied.

“Then just you wait out here for five minutes,” said Hi.

The youngsters obeyed, and Hi went back inside. The three of them stood there in silence. Jamie amused herself with the bird, while Dan and Linc avoided each other’s eyes--Dan because he realized he had done wrong, Linc because he couldn’t stand the sight of Dan just then. Jamie told Dan to come watch the bird with her. He went to her, but he didn’t join in while she made clucking sounds at the bird. Linc felt his anger subside--a little. He still felt coolly toward Dan.

Mr. Alexander came back outside. He had made them each a catfish sandwich on toasted bread. He held them in a small cooler which he presented to Jamie.

“We can’t take your cooler,” she said.

“You surely can. I never use it. I don’t want you kids to go off with nothin’ to show you’ve been here.” With his boot he shyly toed the front step.

Jamie stood on her toes and kissed his gray whiskers. The old man took off his cap and squinted into the distance; it was his turn to blush. He told them to be careful.

“Don’t you go getting all misty on us just yet, Hi,” said Dan. “You still have to take us back to our car.”

“Damn me, I nearly forgot that. I’m waitin’ on y’all now,” said Hi, as he began shooing them toward the truck.

Mr. Alexander drove them back to the motel. The farewells were rather sad for everyone but Linc; he was still embarrassed about what Dan had said while they were eating. So, even though Mr. Alexander had given him a lot to mull over concerning the ways of the working world, he just shook his hand and left it at that.

Jamie patted the man on his chapped, red forearm he had resting on the door of the pickup. Right away the kids were in their car and back out on the highway.

Dan, in an effort to get things back to normal, asked Linc how the money was holding out.

“Well, gee, Dan, let’s see. . . . We stopped for gas a couple of times yesterday, and we spent twenty-two bucks on our room last night. Does that seem like much to you, Dan? Do you think that adds up to anywhere near five thousand dollars?”

“You’re a real asshole, Linc,” said Dan.

“Oh, hell yes, I’m an asshole, Dan! Everybody knows that. Old Hi knows I am because I ran off on Clare. Jamie knows it, too--just look at her back there: she’s so shocked, she can’t say a word.” He looked at her in the mirror. “Yes . . . Christ . . . I got Clare pregnant. Good ol’ Linc.”

Jamie let the dust settle for a minute, then said, “I hope you don’t think I think any less of you for that, Linc. We all make mistakes; I’m proof of that. I was only surprised by it, that’s all.”

After a few quiet moments Linc apologized for his surly behavior and felt rather embarrassed. Then, once again, good feeling prevailed inside the car.

Linc asked, “Where’s your map, Mister Navigator?”

“Is it back there, Jamie?” Dan asked, turning in his seat. He knew Linc had forgiven him; Linc always forgave him once he had cooled off. Dan was glad his friend didn’t keep score or hold grudges, for he knew the numbers were on Linc’s side.

“Coming over,” she said. She tossed the map to Dan.

Dan folded down great Texas and the lion’s share of Louisiana. All that was left of that once-sprawling map was the remainder of Louisiana east of Baton Rouge, the Mississippi and Alabama panhandles, and glorious, beach-bounded Florida--their ultimate purpose, their Shangri-La.

“Where are we anyway?” asked Dan.

“Just out of Baton Rouge,” said Linc, rolling his eyes and shaking his head at Dan’s forgetfulness.

Tracing his finger over the map, Dan said, “Ah, yes. . . . Lemme see, lemme see.”

“How far to Jacksonville?” asked Jamie.

“Lemme see, lemme see. . . . Looks to be about . . . five hundred miles.”

“You gotta be kidding,” said Linc.

“Lemme see, lemme see. . . . Yeah, five hundred miles, give or take fifty.”

Linc couldn’t believe it. He told Dan to let Jamie have a look at the map. He didn’t trust Dan’s methods or his calculations.

“I’m hurt, Linc, I really am,” said Dan.

He handed his map to Jamie. When she had her bearings and had estimated the distance for herself, she said, “He’s right, Linc. It’s about five hundred miles.”

“Give or take fifty,” Dan clarified. “And that’s how the crow flies, Linc; the way we’ve been going, it’ll probably be more like seven hundred miles at the very least.”

“That’s perfect,” said Linc. “If somebody I know didn’t have to stop every few minutes to use the restroom, we’d be there by now.” (That somebody was Dan, for he wasn’t equipped with a very large bladder.)

“You know what else?” said Dan.

“What else, Dan?” said Linc.

“It looks like Jacksonville isn’t even right on the ocean. No, it looks like you have to drive about twenty miles past Jacksonville just to get to the ocean--give or take five or ten miles, of course.”

“And is that as the crow flies, Dan?” said Linc. Linc didn’t wait for Dan’s response--he didn’t want it. He just shook his head and said, “That makes things even more perfect.”

Jamie asked Linc what was the matter.

Linc said, “I just didn’t realize it was so far. I mean, Christ, that’s farther than we went yesterday, and we drove all day long. How can we be making such lousy time?”

Dan said, “I told you that little detour trip down to Houston before we headed west, er, east, might not have been the best idea you ever had, Linc.”

“Thanks, Dan,” said Linc. “That helps a whole lot.”

“I remember I asked you: Why are we going down to Houston before we head east, Linc?, and you said: Why, it’s right on our way, Dan. We’d be hard-pressed to get to Florida if we didn’t go by way of Houston. Now Linc, I let you have your way, because I was only the navigator. I figured ol’ Linc must know better, so I let you have your way--just like always. I only hope you’ve learned a lesson from all this. I hope next time you’ll heed ol’ Dan’s advice.”

“Yeah, Dan, you’re really helping now,” said Linc. Then, under his breath, he asked when had he ever had his way.

Jamie asked Linc if it was because he felt too tired to drive. She told him that there was no hurry, that they could stop and take a break in any town along the way.

“Or we could split up the driving, Linc,” suggested Dan. “Just pull on over right here and let ol’ Dan have the wheel.”

“You’re slipping, Dan,” said Linc.

If the truth were known, Linc was more upset about getting farther and farther away from home than their making such slow time and still having hundreds of miles to go. Thoughts of home and things left unresolved were nagging at him. A great wave of homesickness had washed over him at Mr. Alexander’s catfish breakfast, about the time Dan gave away Linc’s little secret about Clare expecting a baby. He began to have doubts about if he would be able to enjoy himself once they reached Jacksonville.

“Come on, Linc,” said Dan. “You’ve had this car for nearly two years and haven’t as much as let me play like I’m driving it.”

“Tell you what, Dan” said Linc, “why not just sit back and play like you’re driving right now? You can pretend like you’re steering. You know what? You can even make believe you’re honking the horn. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Wouldn’t you like that? Just think, you’d be having so much fun, it would seem like you were there in no time--just like the crow flies.”

“Funny, Linc. Like I’d ever want to drive this ol’ heap.”

Jamie lay down on her side and covered her mouth to suppress her amusement at the bickering boys. They pushed on east.
Continue . . .


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