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“What’s the halfway point between Baton Rouge and Jacksonville?” Linc asked Dan.
Dan had a quick look at the map and then lowered his nose to it, studying it closely. “Well,” he said, “there’s no place in the middle that I’ve ever heard of. You have Mobile, Alabama, a little left of the middle, and Tallahassee, Florida, a little right of the middle--must be all swamp in between them. . . . Hey, where are the Everglades? Bet that’s what’s in between.”
Jamie was looking over Dan’s shoulder at the map. “Pensacola is almost right in the middle, Dan,” she said. “I’ve heard of that.” Feeling that she had finally made some positive contribution to their journey, she leaned back in her seat, satisfied.
“Yeah,” said Linc, “I think some teams play their spring games down there.” Then, turning to Dan, he said, “Christ, Dan, you haven’t even heard of Pensacola? I don’t know how anyone could not have heard of Pensacola and still be such a terrific navigator.”
Dan returned to the map. He said, “Oh, I saw ol’ Pensacola there, but I didn’t mention it, because it’s not right in the middle--it’s a lot farther from ol’ Pensacola to Jacksonville than it is from Baton Rouge to ol’ Pensacola. Everybody’s heard of ol’ Pensacola.” (Everybody except Dan, for he was lying.) “That’s the funniest thing you ever said, Linc--me not hearing of ol’ Pensacola. That was a good one. I’ve heard about it all my life.”
“Sure you have, Dan,” said Linc. “Besides, Jamie said it was almost in the middle.”
Dan began to unfold his trusty map to its full dimensions. Then he tried folding it to agree with the way the manufacturers had intended for it to be folded. Becoming frustrated at not being able to fold it up properly, he threw it on the floor. Assuming his this is the last straw air, he said, “You know what?”
“What, Danny?” said Linc.
“You quit what?”
“I quit as navigator. I do all the brainwork, and all I get for it is a bunch of crap. From now on this heap is gonna be like a boat without a rudder. You two can just find your own damn way. From now on you can just think of me as some hitchhiker you picked up--a hitchhiker who doesn’t like to talk very much, and one who sure doesn’t want to listen to the driver’s jabbering all the time. That’s all I’m gonna say about it.”
When nobody responded to his outburst, he continued: “Yeah, just think of me as the quiet hitchhiker, the hitchhiker who likes his quiet.” He folded his arms across his chest and watched Linc out of the corner of his eye. Dan figured he had an apology coming.
“Oh, please talk to us, Dan,” said Linc. “Pretty, pretty, pretty please.”
“It’s no use trying to smooth things over, now, Linc: ‘cause like I said, I’m through.”
“Jamie?” said Linc.
“Do you mind if we break up the rest of the drive into two days?”
“Of course not. That wouldn’t bother me at all, especially if you’re tired. It isn’t safe to drive that way. Besides, what’s the rush?”
“Then I’ll just shoot for Pensacola,” said Linc.
“Don’t I get a vote?” said Dan. “Don’t I have any say?”
Linc said, “No, Dan, I don’t see how you would have any. Why should the quiet hitchhiker have any say? The only say a hitchhiker has is when he says: This is where I get off. And a quiet hitchhiker like yourself probably wouldn’t even say that much; no, you would probably just tap me on the shoulder and motion me over to the side of the road. Then I could pull over and let you out without me jabbering anything to you.”
“All right, Linc, have it your way,” said Dan. “You can just let me out right now; like I said, I’m through.”
There wasn’t a lot of traffic. Linc slowed the car and found a place to pull off on the shoulder. When the car came to a rest, Dan didn’t budge from his seat.
“There ya go, Dan,” said Linc. “Whatcha waitin’ for?”
“Some of my stuff’s in the back: you’ll have to open the trunk.”
When Linc turned off the engine and stepped out of the car, Jamie said, “Please don’t go, Dan. Please don’t.”
Dan said a clipped goodbye to her.
Linc opened the trunk and handed Dan his gear. He said, “Well, it’s been real nice knowing you, Dan.” He clapped him on the back and started walking back to get in the car.
“I’m really going, Linc,” said Dan.
“I can see that.” Linc stopped and walked back to Dan.
“And there’s no use trying to smooth things over, now,” said Dan.
“Oh, I know it, Dan. I wouldn’t even dream of it. I know how you are once your mind’s made up. You be sure to look us up if--er--when you get to Jacksonville.” Again Linc clapped him on the back.
“What do you mean if?” said Dan. He didn’t like the sound of that. It made him think of alligators.
“I said when, Danny. Again, though, good luck to you.”
“Yeah, you too.”
They shook hands.
Linc went to get back inside the car, but he stood there by the open door and said, “Don’t worry about Jamie.”
Upon hearing that, Dan’s heart sank. He cursed himself for letting things go this far. He hung his head and began putting one foot in front of the other.
As Dan walked slowly ahead, Linc got back in the car. He started the car and inched it along. “Get in,” he said to Dan, when he pulled up alongside him. Linc took the keys from the ignition and tossed them through the window to Dan. Dan was joyful. He opened the trunk and dumped his things back in it.
Back inside the car, Dan said, “Well, you two got farther by yourselves than I ever thought you would--it looks like about ten feet. Ha!” He felt like the conquering hero, an indispensable cog in that wheel moving them forward. He looked for approval from Jamie for what he had just said, but all she did was put one finger to her lips: “Shh.”
“Now--is everybody ready?” said Linc. “Has everybody had their little fit? Can I put the car back out on the road now?”
“I’m ready,” said Dan. “How about you, Jamie?”
“If you two will promise to behave,” she said.
“I promise,” said Dan. “How about you, Linc?”
Linc handed Dan the map and asked, “Which way, Dan?”
Dan looked at the map. “Lemme see, lemme see . . . hmm. . . . Straight on, straight on through to Florida. I’m damned if the car isn’t pointed in the right direction.”
Linc started the car; Dan began to estimate distances; and Jamie settled back for a nap. Linc pulled the car back into traffic. They had lost only a few minutes’ time.
They reached Pensacola at 1:30 p.m. Without any incident with the desk clerk, they took a room in a motel near the bay, which they walked to after locking their things in the room and allowing Dan time to use the bathroom.
They saw vessels of all sizes moving in and out of the bay. There were ships being loaded, ships being unloaded, and pleasure craft beyond them, costly, livable ones with all the extras for making existence on the high seas pleasurable. Hoping for a snack, sea birds buzzed the boats. Then three scavenger birds swooped down near the three youngsters and picked at the remains of a now-unidentifiable fish left there by some cat that had eaten its fill and wandered away just before the arrival of the boys and Jamie. The quickest of the birds seized it in its beak and then lost it as soon as it became airborne. Then the other two birds fell upon it and tore it into two roughly equal pieces, both of them flying away with their share, the third bird hard after them, flying from one to the other, shrieking bird threats, getting nothing for its troubles.
Linc was wise enough to realize Dan and Jamie were developing feelings for each other, so he walked down the shore that they might have some time alone without him there to inhibit them. He chunked a few rocks into the water, a considerable distance away, and then walked landward to a broken-down span of old fencing, and took a seat on it. His backside was tired from sitting, but he was too tired to stand around, either. He knew he would have to rise soon, because the sun was beating directly down on his bare head. He could feel the parking lot behind him giving off radiated heat in his direction. He looked over toward his car and saw heat waves dancing, distorting what his tires looked like. The tires seemed to be moving--not rotating, but moving up and down, side to side. He closed his eyes for a second and faced back around to the busy harbor. He took a quick sip of his soda and then spit some of it at a grasshopper heading toward him. He missed it by a good two feet, but the insect changed its direction anyway. He glanced over at Dan and Jamie. They were both standing with their hands in their pockets, shuffling their feet around like a couple of shy puppies. Linc smiled to see them, but then was quickly aware once more of his homesickness.
Jamie said, “I can’t believe you were going to leave like that, Dan--with only a See you later; have a nice life goodbye. No, that wasn’t even a goodbye at all.” She turned from him, feigning rapt interest in the blurry figure of a man backing a dolly up some boat ramp.
“I wasn’t going anywhere,” Dan said urgently. “Linc and I were only fooling around. If you don’t believe me, ask him.”
“Sure I do. Is that why you were so quiet in the car?”
“I was asleep.”
“I mean after that.”
“Yes. I guess so.”
“Everything all right now? How could I walk off on you?”
She ignored his question. She looked out over the water. She had never been so close to the ocean. But the ocean was of secondary importance to her: Dan Blair was on her mind. Such a sweet boy, she thought. Though he was rough and loud on the outside, she knew that, inside, and not buried very deeply, was a gentle, quiet boy with a wonderful sense of humor; a boy worth knowing, and the kind she had never been close to before. She thought Linc was nice, too, but she had come to have feelings for him that a girl might have for an older brother, even though Linc was a year younger than she. Linc had that effect on a lot of people. They saw him as someone to be relied upon, someone to look up to. Linc had been doing a good job of living up to those expectations his whole life.
Finally she said, “You know, Dan, you haven’t ever told me about your family; you hardly ever mention them.”
“It’s just me and my mom and dad. It’s not any big thing to tell. Linc can tell you some better things about his. They really--”
“I want to hear about your parents, Dan.”
“Oh, we get along okay; but it’s not like I sit at my mother’s knee or anything like that. I’m always with Linc; it’s always been that way. Don’t get me wrong; I love my parents. Anyone who’s put up with me for as long as they have deserves some kind of medal. It’s just that, usually, I feel like Linc is more my blood than they are--Don’t tell Linc I said that.”
“Do your parents like Linc?”
“Everybody likes Linc. He’s as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar--always has been.”
“So his going off on this trip isn’t like him at all?”
“I’m not so sure about that: he’s always talking about traveling.”
“But talking about traveling, and really doing it, aren’t the same thing. Pete used to travel by himself all the time back when he might have gotten into trouble if I went along with him. For weeks before those trips, he would plan out the whole thing: where he would go, the best way to get there, what he would do once he got there. But once he got where he was going, he would get lonely and cut his trip short. Every time he wasn’t gone on business, he got back early. He said he missed me too much, and just being home.”
Dan made a long toss with a rock; he watched it fall into the water. He then slapped his palms across each other, removing the traces left by the rock. He didn’t care for hearing about Pete being with the girl of whom he himself was so fond.
“I can’t believe you and Linc have known each other since kindergarten,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty long time. I liked him that first day. He came over to my house that first weekend.
“I remember we were playing with a ball beside my house, and somehow it wound up on the roof of my neighbor lady’s carport. She was a real witch, a regular hag, with a wart on her nose, stringy ol’ hair--the whole damn kit. Linc put a ladder beside the carport and monkeyed his way up on her roof. I couldn’t see him up there, but I could see his shadow up along the wall of my house; it looked kinda spooky. In a second the ball came bouncing down beside me. I grabbed it, and then I heard that old lady come out of her house. She started hollering and screeching for Linc to get off her roof--Man, it scared me; to this day, I still can’t stand to hear a woman screeching. Anyway, do you know what I did then?”
She shook her head.
“I ran off and left Linc there to face her by himself.” He paused for a moment, frowning at the ground. He felt he had let Linc down that day, and this was the first time he had ever told anyone about it. “It was easy enough for ol’ Linc to get up on that roof--he could climb anything, anything--but getting down off that roof was a different story. He just kept on reaching and reaching with his foot for that ladder; and when he finally touched it with the tip of his shoe, it shifted, and he fell. I must have been ten feet away from him in my bathroom, but I felt the vibration of him hitting the ground--I saw it, and I felt it. I thought he was dead, but then he started crying. I remember I was so glad to hear him crying, because then I knew he wasn’t dead. It broke his leg.” Dan ran his fingers through his hair. “And I watched it all from the safety of my bathroom window. When I finally got up the nerve to go back out there, he was gone. Jamie, that old lady was just always so scary--I swear she was a witch. . . . Man! If I had only held that stupid ladder for him.” His last sentence was a mere whisper.
“You said he was gone when you got back out there--where was he?” asked Jamie.
Dan looked down and said, “I don’t know.”
“Did he get mad at you or something?”
“Linc? No. The next Monday at school, there he was, already getting around fine on his little crutches. Linc’s tough--always was. To this day, he’s never even brought up what happened that day. That’s why I don’t know where he was when I went back outside. I never mentioned it either, never found out about him.”
Jamie felt sorry for Dan. She couldn’t imagine what something like that must be like, carrying it around without ever getting it off his chest; and the image in her mind of Linc falling and breaking his leg made her feel twice as sorry. She was glad Dan trusted her enough to tell her all about it, and she felt closer to him for his having the courage to do so. Dan continued:
“Sometimes I think it was more that old witch lady’s fault than mine. She was nuts. You know what she used to like to do? She’d go creeping out into her backyard--all stooped over, because that’s how they walk--and pick up after her messy dog. She’d put that mutt’s mess into a big ol’ sack and then drag it into her house. God only knows what she did with that stuff; she must’ve had a closet full of it.
“And her dog--whew! Jamie, if you ever tried to pet him, he’d swipe at you. It was like he became all teeth. And if you tried to talk to him--trying to sound real friendly to him--he’d run straight for you and try to jump over the fence to get to you. I think she must’ve trained him to be like that--you know, just real cross and sour all the time. Dogs aren’t just born that way. She must’ve trained him.
“This might not sound very nice or pretty, Jamie, but I was glad when that old witch finally dried up and died one day. But I wish she had conked out at the grocery store or someplace like that. I mean, if a person dies in a grocery store, she’s more likely to haunt that store instead of her house--especially if she’s an old witch. Now when a witch dies in her own house, like she did, you can bet that if you went into that house after she died, it wouldn’t be too long before you started to hear chains rattling around in the attic and stuff like that.”
Jamie asked him what became of the dog after the lady died.
Dan said, “Somebody with the city hauled him off in a truck. The whole back end of that truck had been made into a cage with bars set real close together so the dogs couldn’t nip at you. Plus it was divided into separate jails so that the mean, no-good dogs couldn’t get at the nice ones that were just lost or had just strayed off. That hound was snarling at me as they drove it away. I shook my fist at him and hollered out that the man at the dog pound would gas him, because he was no good and wasn’t ever friendly. I chased that truck down the street a little ways so that mutt would know I wasn’t afraid of it.
“It was pretty spooky when that old lady’s house sat empty for a while. Places are always spookier when someone has just died in them. And if it’s a witch who has just died there, well, look out. But now this new old lady and her husband live there. They’re real friendly. That new old lady will bring you something to drink if you’re messing around in the backyard. It’s usually just something like lemonade--never anything you really want, like a Coke--but it’s kinda nice of her even if it’s just lemonade.
“You should see this new old lady, Jamie. She looks just like somebody’s great, great, great-grandmother or somebody--she must be a hundred and six.
“Usually, if an old lady is mean or crazy, I tell her she is, just so she’ll know I understand her. But this old lady is real friendly, so I told her she is. About her being crazy . . . I don’t know . . . I’m still working on that. . . . She does smile a lot, but I just don’t know. For now, I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt. But I know she’s not mean or cross. Anyway, she sure beats that spooky old witch.”
When he finally quit rambling he was quiet for a few moments and then asked her what they had been talking about. She told him they had been talking about him and Linc. Then she asked him if he had spent a lot of time with Linc’s family.
“Sure. All the time. You ought to meet his brother Royce: I swear he’s like an old man.” She laughed and asked how Royce was like an old man.
Dan said, “Christ, he’s up before the roosters. He sits there and reads his newspaper just like some old guy would. He’s all set in his ways already. Know what else he does? He looks over his glasses at you just like some old guy would--that’s what really gets me.”
“Are he and Linc very close?”
“Sure. Linc looks out for him like he does everybody else. Sometimes, though, if we want to go get a beer or something, Linc chases him off if he’s hanging around. Don’t ever tell him I told you this, but I kinda like Royce, so I don’t mind him hanging around sometimes. Royce has it kinda rough sometimes.”
“How do you mean?”
“Some kind of stomach disease.”
“How did he get that?”
“They aren’t sure. They think it might be caused by worrying about stuff.”
“Does he worry a lot?”
“I guess so.”
“Old man stuff, I bet.”
“Is his disease contagious?”
“Well, that’s one thing I do know: no, it’s not.”
“I feel so sorry for him.”
“Christ, don’t let Royce ever hear you say that.”
“Because maybe I’m shooting off my mouth about something he told me not to tell anyone about. So just forget it. And don’t worry about Royce; he’s a tough old geezer.”
Despite herself, Jamie couldn’t help laughing. She said, “How old is he?”
“He’s ten in Royce years; that’s about eighty in yours and mine.”
Again she laughed; but then she put the back of her hand to her forehead; her face went ghastly pale. “Ah, I think I’m going to be sick,” she said. She looked up at the sky, and that made her feel dizzy. She reeled to one side. Dan steadied her, his hand on her shoulder.
“Sit down, Jamie,” he said.
She sat, really just dropping to her knees.
“That’s it. Just sit there for a minute, and I’ll be right back.”
He ran in the direction Linc had gone. He hadn’t taken six strides when he heard Jamie vomiting. He ran faster.
“Linc, wait up,” he hollered. Linc had been sitting down, but he had just stood up and begun to walk away without hearing Dan’s call, which occurred simultaneously with the stark cries of some newly arrived waterfowl streaking low over the shore, open water their goal.
Dan hustled to reach him; when he did, between pants, he said, “It’s Jamie . . . she’s sick. . . . Let me have your Coke.”
Linc handed Dan his half-finished soda can. Dan took off for Jamie, and Linc followed.
By the time they reached her she had stopped vomiting. She had moved away from her mess and knelt down on the ground, her stomach still convulsing, trying to bring forth more of what was no longer inside her.
Dan knelt beside her. He pressed against her forehead the cold, damp bottom of the soda can. “Any better, Jamie?” he asked.
“A little, thanks.” The acid stuck in her throat made her cough.
“I’ll get you fixed up,” he said. He reached inside his pants pocket for his handkerchief and gently cleansed her chin. “You had a little urp there.”
That embarrassed her; still, she smiled, her eyes narrowed by the glare off the bay. “Thank you, Dan.”
Dan slowly moved the can to both her temples and then to the spot just below her ears. “Better?” he asked.
He moved a strand of her unruly hair behind her ear the way she liked it. Color was returning to her face. She asked if she looked all right, and he told her that she did.
Linc had never seen Dan in the role of caretaker. He stood quietly by and didn’t interfere with Dan’s ministering to her. He could see that his friend took to it easily. He said, “You don’t have to scare us like that, Jamie.”
“I’m sorry, Linc,” she said. “I guess Mr. Alexander’s fish didn’t keep so well after all.”
Then Dan saw red. “That old sadist!” he flared. “He acted like he knew what he was doing. That old--”
“Dan, you’re terrible,” said Jamie. “He was a sweet old man.”
“Oh, he was sweet enough,” agreed Dan; “he seemed clean enough, too. It’s just that old-timers like him don’t make that extra little effort needed to make things really clean; they always leave a hair in the soup for you or something like that. And fish is about the worst thing somebody who doesn’t know what he’s doing could feed you. Fish has to be cooked just right, or it’ll wipe out everyone fool enough to eat it. And do you remember how he wouldn’t tell us where he caught those fish? For all we know, he could have been fishing in the sewer or some damn place.” He made a disgusted face and waved his arm across his face to punctuate his disgust. Then he shuddered, a shiver flying up his back, wondering just where Mr. Alexander had caught their breakfast.
“Dan, you could’ve eaten off the man’s floor; everything was spotless,” said Linc.
“Yeah, but still--” Dan began.
“Let’s forget it,” said Jamie. “The important thing is, how do you two feel? It just came on me all of a sudden.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Dan, “when I get like that, it really lays me low.” Then he turned to Linc and said, “Do you remember the time we cooked that bird you shot with your bb-gun?”
(That incident happened when the boys were twelve. They were spending the weekend at Linc’s grandfather’s place--just a stone house on some wooded acreage. Linc shot what they took to be a pigeon, and the boys thought it would be nice to cook it for their lunch. After plucking their quarry, they made a cooking fire in a clearing and, with sticks, rigged up the sad bird so it would roast over the balky fire. Due to the unpleasant stench of some smoldering, unplucked feathers, they didn’t cook it for as long as they should have. Since they didn’t exactly have along with them their fine china, when the bird had cooled down sufficiently, they would pass it between them and just eat it with their hands. Dan took the first bite and then handed the bird to Linc. Just when Linc was about to take his first bite, he saw it--the blood from the raw bird running from the corners of Dan’s mouth. They hadn’t cooked it long enough. It was the finished quality of the burnt feathers that made them think it was ready. Linc flung the bird away and couldn’t help laughing at Dan, who had wiped his chin and discovered blood on his fingertips. Dan spit out the bite and ran to the house, concentrating all the way on not swallowing any of the lingering residual of the bird flesh in his mouth. He rinsed and gargled three times with Listerine. He didn’t touch another bite of food for the rest of that day. He just lay in bed, quietly waiting for death. But he didn’t get sick at all and was fine the next morning.)
Yes, Linc remembered that bird. He said, “Chances are, Dan, if you’re not sick by now, you might not need to worry about it.”
“Gee, I really appreciate you making a house call like this, Dr. Lebeau,” said Dan. “How much do I owe you?” Dan thought Linc was being a know-it-all.
“Linc’s right, Dan,” said Jamie. Then, turning to Linc: “Do you feel all right, Linc?”
“I feel fine. Dan here’s the one who should be worrying: he’s the one who scarfed down the most fish. Yeah, he was really shoveling it in there with both hands.”
“Do you really think so, Linc? Do you really think I ate too much of that fish?” Dan was near panic.
“Gee, Dan, I don’t know. I’m not a doctor now, am I?”
“Man, I’ll be a goner if I come down with that. It always puts me on my back for at least a week.”
Linc said, “Jesus, Dan, one way or another, you’ll live.”
“Yeah, but for how long, and how comfortably?” said Dan. He shook his head.
Jamie began to laugh. She was feeling much better.
“Why not drink the rest of this, if you feel like it,” suggested Dan, offering her the soda. She asked Linc if that would be all right, and he said he wished she would. She finished it in two long drinks: “Now I’m freezing,” she said. Her teeth were chattering, and she hugged herself for warmth.
Linc asked her if she thought she could walk back to the motel. She said she thought she could, but then Dan suggested to Linc that he bring the car for her. Linc didn’t respond; he trotted off to the motel, ignoring Jamie’s shouted protest that she could make it back all right.
Once more she said she was freezing, so Dan put his arm around her, his cheek to hers. He turned and sniffed her hair; he soundlessly kissed it, really just allowing his lips to graze the lovely black mass. “Better?” he asked.
“Yes. . . . You’re so warm.”
Not wanting her to be overly warm, he released her from his arm.
“No, Dan . . . please keep holding me.”
Dan liked the sound of that. This time he took her in both his arms, sweetly and innocently. He said, “Pretty out here, isn’t it?”
“Mmm, it’s nice.” She snuggled in closer to him. They waited for Linc, each with the feeling one gets upon discovering something not only new, but wonderful.
Too soon Linc was back with the car. As he neared the two of them and saw them embracing, he said to himself as he slapped the steering wheel: “Well, Dan, it looks like maybe you’ve finally done something right.” He slammed the car door so they would know he had returned.
The two boys helped her into the front seat, and then Linc drove them back to the motel. They wanted to help her out of the car and into the room, but she said she felt fine and could manage it by herself, which she did. She did say she would appreciate it if one of them would bring in her suitcase for her. Linc reached into his pants pocket for his keys and said, “I got it. Want your bag, Dan?”
A few minutes later Linc walked in loaded down with all their things. He unloaded them on the beds. Jamie said she was going to shower and get into bed.
Once showered, she put on her pretty, long nightgown from the night before and chose the bed nearest the window. Before she crawled in she made sure Dan and Linc didn’t mind her taking one of the beds.
“Of course not, Jamie. That’s fine,” said Linc.
“Yeah,” said Dan, “I’ll let Linc in with me again.”
Dreading that prospect, Linc glared at Dan.
Jamie was asleep in no time. The chill being out of her body, and the room being almost uncomfortably warm, she slept on top of her sheets.
The boys found it difficult to keep their eyes off her--not out of desire, but because she simply looked so lovely lying there asleep. Linc was able to distract himself by watching television with the sound turned way down so as not to disturb her. Dan sat at the table, playing his wide variety of solitaire card games, but he missed a lot of plays due to his constantly looking over at Jamie. Isn’t she just the prettiest girl? he asked himself, gazing in her direction, placing a red three atop a red four.
Time passed slowly, and the boys grew restless for their dinner. “I might starve, Linc,” whispered Dan.
Linc shushed him. It must be said in Dan’s defense that, up till that moment, he had been perfectly silent, not even shuffling the cards, but instead just jamming the two stacks of cards together when he was ready for another hand. But now his griping stomach took some of the luster off watching over Jamie while she slept. He had wanted to be on hand in case she woke up wanting anything; but now, if it meant him getting some food on his stomach, he would be content letting her fend for herself for a while. He began to think of Thanksgiving day feasts and Sunday evening potroasts, any large piece of meat awash in its own juices, calling his name.
His stomach growled. “Hear that, Linc?” he whispered.
“Yeah, that was real pretty, Dan,” said Linc, watching a busty blond hawking used cars in some dreadfully glitzy television commercial for a local used-car lot.
“I’m about starved.”
“I swear, Linc, I’m damned if I’m not about starved.”
“I heard you the first time, Dan. Hold it down,” said Linc, jerking his thumb toward Jamie.
After a good five minutes of silence, Dan said, “I could really pass out, Linc. You know I pass out sometimes when I don’t get fed.”
Linc had had enough. He switched off the television, walked over to where Jamie lay, and roused her by tapping gently on her shoulder. Groggily, she asked what was going on.
“It’s Dan. I’m afraid he’s gonna fall flat on his face if he doesn’t get something to eat pretty soon.”
“What? Really?” she said. She was disoriented.
“Well, he keeps threatening to every two seconds. And there’s gonna be no end of hearing about it if he doesn’t get fed right away. Do you want to come with us?”
“Where are you going?” she asked. “Is it far?” (Jamie wasn’t comfortable being by herself in strange places.)
“There’s a place right next door.”
That was a relief to her. She said she didn’t really care for anything, but insisted that the boys go on without her.
Dan asked her if she was sure she would be all right by herself, and she said she would be fine. The boys assured her they would come right back when they were finished, and then they walked next door to a truck stop called Ethel’s.
The place was rundown on the outside, but inside it was clean and fairly busy. Most of the diners were solo truck drivers, but there were a couple of business-types and several locals, because the food was good and served in generous portions.
Since there was no greeter on hand to seat them, the boys took a booth beneath a window from which they could watch the traffic on the highway increase. Dan hoped some kind soul would spot them soon and take their order. They each took a smudged menu from behind the napkin holder.
“What time is it, Linc?” asked Dan.
“Probably about six-thirty. I left my watch back--”
“Six-thirty? I’ve never had dinner this late in my whole life. Do you think they’re still serving this late?”
“Late? Christ, Dan, I’ve seen you eat later than this at least a million times at Molly’s.”
“Yeah, but that’s always after I have something working down in my belly before going over there. You know yourself that I haven’t had anything to snack on for a long time. Plus there’s the time difference between here and back home. I think there’s about ten hours’ difference.”
“You’re crazy. It’s only about one hour’s difference. Quit whining and see what you want to have.”
“I thought I would keel over on the way over here, Linc.”
“I know, I know. Just look at the menu, Dan.”
“It’s hard to decide when you’re this hungry, Linc. I think I might starve.”
“Do you think you might starve to death, Dan?” asked Linc, pretending to be concerned for Dan’s health and welfare.
“Christ, yes,” said Dan, finally opening his menu.
“If I were you, I’d be more worried about me strangling you to death if you don’t stop saying how hungry you are.”
“Jabber, jabber, jabber. Will you please pipe down and let me look at the menu, Linc.”
“Jesus,” Linc mumbled through a sigh. He shook his head at Dan.
Dan’s eyes flitted about the menu, lighting on all the small pictures showing all the wonderful culinary experiences the humble establishment had to offer: plump pork chops, broiled steaks, sagging fish platters--which made Dan wince, and various sandwiches and side dishes, all of them all-American victuals displayed in all their glory on red and white- checked tablecloths just like the ones back at Molly’s, which made Linc think of home; he would bet there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any two diners in the country.
A robust gray woman came up to their booth; she took a stubby pencil from behind her ear and asked what they would like to have to eat. Though she stood fixed there like some great mountain, she nonetheless had the air of a woman in a hurry. Linc told her he would like a grilled-cheese sandwich and some fries.
“Anything to drink?” she asked.
“Water’s fine, thank you.”
“And how about you?” she said, facing her body around toward Dan, but not bothering to look up from her order pad.
Linc looked at her in profile. Her large, powerful, completely unfeminine frame was enough like Molly’s for them to be twin sisters--that is, if the two of them looked anything alike in the face; for though this woman’s face was every bit as homely and pleasant as Molly’s, any resemblance was limited to their wrestler’s build.
“What’s good, lady?” asked Dan. “What comes with the most food?”
“We serve a big steak around here, and it comes with two whole baked potatoes. We don’t give it away, though, no offense.”
Dan said, “Are you asking us if we have any money, lady?”
“Not asking, just hinting real nice.” She finally looked up from her pad. She gave Dan a genuinely friendly smile. She had been in business for herself long enough to know that, even though the customer is rarely, if ever, right, it paid to be nice to him.
Dan said, “Listen, lady, we’ve got money--plenty of it. You just go on back there and fix me up that steak and bring him his ol’ cheese sandwich.”
She laughed and said, “One steak coming up.”
“And two whole potatoes,” Dan reminded her. She laughed again and assured him she hadn’t forgotten them.
“And hey, lady--”
“Something else?” she asked, holding her pencil at the ready.
“You forgot to get my drink order.”
“Goodness gracious me, I surely did. Would you like a glass of water like your friend’s having?” Her face assumed a jolly expression, one that told Dan serving him was her happy lot in life.
“Naw. Bring Linc his ol’ water. I want a tall glass of iced tea.”
“Iced tea,” she said, writing it down on her pad.
“A tall one,” Dan reminded her.
“A tall one,” she parroted and wrote. “Would you like a straw with that?”
“A straw? Christ, lady, do I look like I’m two years old?”
“No, no, no. I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just that we have a big carton of straws out back that we haven’t even opened up yet. I’m just hopin’ to get rid of some of those things. I’m tired of walking around ‘em.”
“Well,” said Dan, becoming a rather benevolent little dictator, “if you have a long straw that’ll reach to the bottom of a tall glass, I guess you can bring me one. But don’t bring me one that only reaches halfway down--I hate a short straw. Isn’t that right, Linc?”
“That’s true, ma’am. He’s always been that way,” said Linc, as if on cue.
“So,” Dan resumed, “if they’re long, bring one for Linc, too--No, wait; he didn’t ask for a tall glass of water: just bring him his ol’ regular-sized glass with no straw.”
“Is that all right with you?” she asked Linc.
“Yeah, I’ll manage without one.”
“Is there anything else?” she asked amusedly.
“Just one more thing,” said Dan.
She readied her pencil.
“Can you kinda make it snappy? I’m about starved.”
She laughed and told him she would make it her top priority. Then she disappeared behind the swinging doors that led to the kitchen.
“Linc,” said Dan, “I think the next old-timer who asks me if I have any money is gonna get a punch right in the nose. Do I look like I’m always broke or something? I can understand them thinking you don’t have two nickels to rub together, but I just don’t get why they think I’m broke. If I saw me walk into some restaurant or some cafe, I’d think I look pretty flush, like I was living off a trust fund or something.”
Linc wasn’t even listening to him. He had laid his head down on the table and was nearly asleep. He couldn’t remember not being tired--and not just sleepy--tired and fatigued in every muscle and joint.
It wasn’t long before the lady returned with Linc’s grilled-cheese sandwich. She tapped him lightly on the shoulder, for he was truly sleeping now. “Bless your heart,” she said, setting down his food.
Dan said, “How’s that steak comin’?”
She said, “Just a couple more minutes: it’s a lot of food. You’re a hungry one, ain’t ya?”
“Yeah,” said Linc, “and he’s near starved.” She laughed and was once more making her way back to the kitchen.
“Can I have a bite of that sandwich just to hold me over, Linc?” asked Dan.
Linc ignored his question, so Dan waited a few moments before he asked it again--the second time asking Linc if he would ‘save’ him a bite, hoping that sounded more desperate.
Seeing the lady approaching with a gurney laded with a meal at which, due to its gargantuan proportions, all the other diners paused to gape for a second prior to reaching for their antacid tablets, Linc said, “I think yours is coming, Dan.”
Dan watched the cart come closer and closer to their booth. He squirmed in his seat and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
She uncovered the meal and placed before Dan the biggest cut of meat he had ever seen in his life. The steak hung over the edge of one plate, and the potatoes were served on a separate plate; three whopping biscuits filled a covered basket beside which lay a quarter-stick of real butter. Dan’s mouth watered. He could have cried. He was nearly speechless--nearly.
“Oh, boy. Oh, boy,” mumbled Dan, hurriedly unrolling his napkin to get at the silverware couched inside it. “I didn’t much like you at first, lady, but I think you’re starting to grow on me.”
“This ought to keep you busy for a while,” she said, stepping back so she could better enjoy Dan’s reaction.
Dan cut his first bite of steak and held it up and admired it slowly turning on his fork so he could love it from every angle. And just before he slipped it into his mouth, he observed, “That ol’ sandwich of yours doesn’t look like much now, does it, Linc? No, it looks kinda pitiful, if you ask me.” He took that first bite, and the expression on his face showed that he was having a pretaste of what he assumed angel-catered meals in Heaven would taste like. He then made a silent promise to be better in order not to miss out on any such bounty in the hereafter.
Linc didn’t respond; but after comparing his poor half-eaten sandwich with Dan’s side of beef, he knew Dan was right. Seeing Dan’s meal was bad enough, but having to sit there and smell it, too! That wouldn’t be easy. Oh, and the way Dan would sometimes talk to his meal--court it, really--saying to it how wonderful it was, and how he would miss it when it was gone. That was going to be hard for Linc to take. He tried to resign himself to enjoying the rest of his sandwich.
When Dan had washed down his first bite of steak, he set his glass down beside Linc’s. A befuddled expression appeared on his face, and he said, “There must be some kinda mistake here, lady: my glass is as short as Linc’s.”
The lady had foreseen the possibility of Dan’s consternation, so she had prepared for it a response in advance: “It’s not so much yours is short, as it is I decided to give your friend a tall glass, too. So, you see, neither of them is short: they’re both tall. I couldn’t very well let your friend sit there watching you eat that big ol’ steak while he sips water out of a short glass. No, sir, I couldn’t do that.”
Dan smelt a rat. Glancing around the diner, he saw that everybody had the same size glass as he and Linc. He said, “Lady, everybody in the place has the same size glass. What are you trying to put over?”
“But it’s not like that at all, son,” she said. “It just so happens everyone in the place ordered a tall glass.”
“I’m damned,” said Dan, supposing that to be a rare occurrence in the restaurant trade.
“Yep,” said the lady, “it’s the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
“Then I’m doubly damned,” said Dan.
She winked at Linc and said to Dan she couldn’t believe he would think anybody foolish enough to try to pull the wool over his eyes. Then, eager to change the subject to anything but glass size, she asked them where they were from.
“Texas,” said Linc.
“Well, that’s a big state--whereabouts in Texas?”
“Not far from Dallas,” Linc clarified a bit.
She moved Dan’s plates to the other end of the booth; she then scooted Dan over that she might sit next to him.
“Why don’t you have a seat, lady?” Dan said sarcastically.
“Are you boys stayin’ in Pensacola, or just passin’ through?” she asked, resting her chin on her hand as if she were hunkering down for a nice long chat, and then, leaning her head across the table toward Linc, a little cross swinging out like a pendulum on a chain from where it had rested between her overly large breasts.
“Just overnight,” said Linc, quickly glancing up from her ancient bosom, which no one could have helped noticing, unbecoming as the sight may have been.
“Have you had a chance to look around Pensacola at all?” she asked, as if she might be with the chamber of commerce.
“We looked at your bay, lady. It’s pretty nice here,” said Dan. “Hey, you’re not gonna get fired for loafing around, jabbering, are you, lady?”
“Ha!” she boomed. “I own this place, son. I’m Ethel.”
Linc extended his hand, saying, “I’m Linc, ma’am, and this is Dan.” Dan merely nodded her his acknowledgment; he was going after his steak in earnest.
The lady sat back in the seat, crossed her arms over her big stomach, and watched Dan eat for a few moments. She said, “This one can sure put away the food, I see. Just look at him, would you. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s like a regular whirling dervish.” She shook her head in wonder.
“He was near starved,” said Linc.
“I can see that,” she said, now nodding her head, admiring that force of nature that was Dan Blair.
“Thought I’d keel over,” Dan managed to say in-between bites. Then, as if to make up for those few seconds lost speaking, he accelerated his chewing, reducing the bite to a size he could swallow, and then speared the next one he had already severed from the shrinking piece of meat while chewing the last one. He was a model of eating efficiency, with little wasted effort or motion, all his actions bent on finishing that steak.
She pushed her sleeve up and glanced at the watch on her tight, bloated wrist. “I better get back in that kitchen. I don’t want to keep this one from his dinner any longer,” she teased, knowing fully well Dan hadn’t once looked up from his plate.
Linc finished the last of his fries, wiping up with it the last of his ketchup. Watching Dan eat wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world to be doing, so he asked Dan if he had brought along the map.
“No . . . Linc . . . I didn’t bring the damn map. I thought I could have twenty minutes’ peace to eat my damn dinner.”
“Just asking, Dan. No need to get all pissed.”
They sat in silence but for all the noise that typically went along with Dan’s eating. Linc eyed him with disgust.
When Dan finished the big steak, he slid the plate aside, leaned back, patted his stomach, and gasped, “Whew.” Thinking Dan had perhaps reached the bursting point, Linc asked him if he might have one of the baked potatoes.
“I didn’t have any of your old cheese sandwich,” said Dan. “You can go over there and get a bag of chips or something.”
“Forget it, Dan. You just go ahead and stuff your face.”
“Now who’s getting pissed? Listen, Linc, if there are any scraps left over when I’m done, you can have them.”
“I don’t want your old scraps.”
“Linc, I’m only trying to be nice: I’m saving that second potato for Jamie. Just look at it. . . . You know if I was planning on eating that second potato, I would have buttered it up by now just like this one. You know I always butter them up nice and thick. I just thought, since she’s sick, Jamie might be able to eat a potato: they’re supposed to not be too hard on a sick stomach.”
As soon as he finished speaking, Dan got a strange look on his face. He went pale. He pushed his plate to the center of the table.
“Man, I think I ate too much,” he said, his face even paler.
“Yeah, and too fast, too,” Linc observed.
“Whew! Let’s get out of here. If I don’t walk this off pretty quick, I’ll be a goner.”
Linc clicked his tongue and shook his head at him. He said, “How anybody could eat so much so fast, I’ll never know. It’s like watching a pig at a slop trough.”
“Just go pay, will ya, Linc?” Dan let out an agonized groan. “I’m just gonna sit here for a minute. . . . And hey, see if they have any of those little chocolate mints in a green wrapper; I think one of those might settle my stomach.”
“But you’ve got about ten pounds’ worth of potato on your plate, Dan: I thought you just said that a potato went real good on a sick stomach.”
Dan moaned. He begged Linc never again to mention potatoes. Linc went and paid Ethel, who was filling in for a girl taking a break. He chatted briefly with her as she counted out his change.
“Here’s your mint, Dan,” he said upon returning.
“She charge you for this?” asked Dan, holding up the mint.
“No. . . . Are you gonna wrap up that potato for Jamie, or not?”
“Linc, I don’t even want to look at it. Will you bring it for her?”
“What about the one you didn’t finish? Do you want me to bring it, too, or do you want me just to leave it as scraps?” He picked up the now offensive potato and held it right beneath Dan’s nose. “Look,” he said. “Yummy.”
The aroma of the thing was too much for Dan to bear. He said, “Quit, Linc. You’re killing me, I swear.” He groaned and shoved away Linc’s hand.
Without another taunting word, Linc wrapped Jamie’s potato in a napkin. Dan got up, and the boys headed for the door.
“How was that steak?” Ethel hollered after Dan (at Linc’s instigation).
“Lady, I think you’ve poisoned me--” said Dan, turning to give the woman a good piece of his mind. Then Linc grabbed him by the arm and hurried him out the door.
They walked back to the motel. At the door, Dan said he would remain outside and walk around for a bit. He thought the fresh air would be better than the stale air inside their room. Linc took the cold potato inside for Jamie, but soon came back out and caught up with Dan. He told Dan she was still asleep.
“How did she look?”
“I think she was feeling better when we left. She’ll be fine, Dan.”
“No . . . I mean, did she look pretty?”
“She looked real pretty. She’s a pretty girl, Dan.”
“Isn’t she? She’s real sweet, too.”
When Linc didn’t respond to that observation, Dan said, “Don’t you think she’s sweet, Linc?”
Laughing a little, Linc said, “I think she’s about the sweetest girl I know, Dan. Know what else I think?”
“Now I could be wrong about this, but I think she has a small crush on you, Daniel. Don’t ask me why, I just--”
“Do you really think so?” Dan asked. He was confident she did, but some reinforcement from Linc on the subject couldn’t hurt that confidence. Also, Dan just liked talking about her. The mere mention of her name made his insides go all limp and swimmy, like runny scrambled eggs.
“I’m probably mistaken,” said Linc.
“No kidding around now, dammit. Have you seen her looking at me, or something?”
“Now I could be wrong, but I think I have.”
“What does she look like when she’s looking?” Dan was urgent.
“What do you mean, Daniel?”
“You know what I mean.”
Linc furrowed his brow to show Dan he was pondering his question profoundly. He said, “I guess it reminded me of that look you get when you see a plate of fried chicken.”
“Don’t fool me, Linc,” said Dan. He thought that sounded too good to be true.
“I’m not fooling. Again, though, I may be wrong.”
In order to consider this new revelation, Dan squatted down where he stood; he also thought a change of position might soothe his rebellious stomach.
Linc said, “It’s just too bad you don’t like her at all. It’s a damn shame.”
“Linc, I’m crazy about her.”
“Really?” said Linc, acting as if that was news to him.
Dan stood up to lend his words more emphasis and conviction. He said, “Just hearing her voice or seeing her smile, well . . . that’s all I’d ever want. I feel like if I blink my eyes when I’m with her, well . . . I’m afraid I might miss something.
“Isn’t she just the prettiest girl?” he continued. “Don’t you just want to love her up whenever she moves her hair behind her ear?”
“I have to admit I have noticed her doing that,” said Linc.
“You don’t care, though, do you, Linc? I mean, if I like her, you won’t have any hard feelings, will--”
“You know better than that, Dan. Don’t ever worry about that. I think it’s real fine for the two of you.”
Dan then suggested they go inside and watch Jamie sleep. That brought a squelched chuckle from Linc. Dan felt fine by now: he had only had too much to eat, and, as usual, he had eaten it too quickly. His stomach had grown used to Dan eating relatively daintily while in Jamie’s presence, and it wasn’t up to the task of sorting and digesting such a large quantity of peppered beefsteak. So not only was having Jamie around a pleasant experience in itself, but also, if she took all her meals with Dan, it might even do wonders for his digestion and his table manners.
Jamie slept straight through that night and was the first of them up the next morning. She dressed quietly and waited for the boys to stir. It was her turn to stand over Dan for a moment while he slept the sleep of the just, lying there in his pajamas, staying toward his side of the bed, away from Linc’s. She found Dan to be every bit as handsome as Linc.
Once Dan and Linc woke up, they got dressed, loaded the car, and went and settled their bill. Then the three of them walked over to Ethel’s to have some breakfast.
The patches of tar on the parking lot could be smelled as if still simmering from the previous day’s heat. The clear blue sky offered no promise of relief from the heat snap that had lain heavily over the gulf coast for days stretching into weeks. They went inside and took the booth they had had the day before.
“Who’s the pretty one?” asked Ethel, when she came around for their orders.
“This is Jamie,” said Linc. “Do you ever give yourself a day off, Ethel, or do you just work twenty-five hours a day every day?”
“I tell you, sometimes I feel like I put in twenty-five,” she said. “But do you know what I call that?”
“Job security. I got boys pushin’ their rigs through here regular, and I want to keep ‘em fed. That’s what I do, every day, even Christmas. You just come by here on Christmas morning, and you won’t go away hungry.”
Then, looking at Dan, she said, “I’m almost afraid to talk to this one; he claimed I tried to poison him yesterday.”
Dan told her he was sorry about that, and that he had simply eaten too much.
“Why not take a load off your feet for a minute?” said Linc.
“I won’t mind it,” she said, scooting Dan over to the wall.
“How about getting our orders in there first, Ethel?” said Dan, pushed up against the wall by Ethel’s girth, because he had sat across the table from Jamie so he could look at her, without realizing that would leave room for Ethel on his side should she choose to sit down with them again. Hoping that Ethel would cede some of the room she was taking, he gave the big woman an elbow in the side, only causing a depression in her flesh she didn’t even notice. She stayed put, encroaching upon Dan.
She said to Dan, “Didn’t you get enough to eat last night?” Then to Linc: “He eat all that last night?”
“Oh, he did pretty well by it,” said Linc.
“Guess he’s about starved again by now, though,” she said.
“Ethel,” said Dan, “I feel like I might just faint away.”
“What you kids want?” she asked, rising. “Bacon and eggs all around?”
“That come with toast?” asked Dan.
“Yours will. Coffee, too.”
The kids said that sounded fine to them, so Ethel went to turn in their order. She soon returned and took her place beside Dan.
She said to Jamie: “How did you wind up with these two rascals? Are you all brother and sister?”
“No, ma’am,” said Jamie. “We’re all friends.”
“Well, that’s fine. These two don’t fight over you, do they?”
“We haven’t yet,” said Linc. “We still might, though--just look at her: she gets prettier every morning.”
Jamie felt her cheeks go warm.
“You should see her when she sleeps,” added Dan.
“You guys are embarrassing me,” said Jamie. “Please don’t.”
Coming to Jamie’s rescue by changing the subject, Ethel mentioned that though the boys had told her they were only passing through Pensacola, they had failed to mention what their final destination would be.
“Jacksonville,” said Linc.
“Nice place, Jacksonville,” she said. “I got an aunt still hangin’ on out there. Are you going to be doing any fishing, or are you just going to be playing on the beach?”
“Is it Jacksonville we’re going to, Ethel?” asked Dan. (Distracted by Jamie, Dan had truly forgotten their destination, and he had only been listening with one ear when Linc told Ethel where they were going.)
“You tell me, sonny!” boomed Ethel. She put her beefy arm around Dan. “This one doesn’t know where he’s going.”
Dan said, “I knew we were going someplace in Florida. I just couldn’t remember where exactly. But it’s not like I’m driving, anyhow: I’m only navigator.”
“Then God help the three of you,” said Ethel. By now she was roaring with laughter, and Linc and Jamie joined in on the fun.
Dan watched them quietly until the three of them stopped laughing, then he softly said, “Lady, I’ve got us all this far in one piece, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get us the rest of the way, too.”
“All right, then,” said Ethel, “which way is Jacksonville?”
“Dead west,” Dan teased.
Again she roared. “Ha! Try again.”
“Dead east, I meant to say.”
“Yes,” she said, “yes, sir, you might make it there at that--if they give you two cracks at it.”
She went to get their breakfast and soon returned with it on a high cart. She set down their dishes and told them to let her know if they needed anything else, and then went away to help some other customers, two regulars jokingly warning her that they would take their business elsewhere if she didn’t see to them soon.
“All right,” Jamie said accusingly, “what was all that about how she should see me when I’m sleeping?”
Linc said, “Yeah, what did you mean by that, Daniel?”
“What?” said Dan, regarding the two of them and feeling outnumbered. “She looks real pretty when she sleeps. You said so yourself, Linc.”
Jamie lowered her head in case her appreciation was showing. She loved the way Dan had said it so guilelessly.
They finished their breakfast. When she saw the kids were getting ready to leave, Ethel told
them to be sure and stop in any time they found themselves back in Pensacola. They went back to
the car and resumed their trek east.
Continue . . .
All text copyright John T. 1995-Present. All rights reserved.