I walked out on one of those January mornings that sometimes graces us here in the Carolinas—a morning prematurely ripe with spring, the sun warm on my shoulders and a balmy, tropical breeze blowing up from the Gulf—and knew I needed an adventure. I was thinking a drive to some quaint town I’d never been, breakfast at a local café where the waitress didn’t know my name. Maybe chat that waitress up.
I left without a word to my wife.
She wouldn’t miss me anyway. She was on the phone and claimed to have a golf lesson later on—lunching with the ladies and shopping after that. But she never said what ladies, or where they were shopping. Plus everyone knew golf pros were womanizers, and this pro had a reputation.
I slid behind the wheel of my black BMW, backed out, and gassed up down the street. I went inside, hit the ATM for $250, and bought a pack of cigarettes. I hadn’t smoked since college and had no intention of restarting a bad habit, but I liked the idea of how I’d look with a cigarette hanging off my lip—younger and even a little dangerous. I asked the pretty girl behind the counter for my old brand, disappointed that the packaging was different than I remembered. Instead of a white package with rakish red lettering, my brand now came in baby-blue. There was nothing dangerous about baby-blue, but I wasn’t the kind of guy who changed brands just because something new and sexy came along.
I guessed the counter-girl for early twenties—a skinny blonde with skittish eyes the color of the cigarette package and what we used to call a peaches and cream complexion. She’d passed on make-up, which she didn’t need anyway, and wore a cheap print dress thin enough to see through.
“How’s your morning?” I asked, hoping for a smile. Both my first wife, Jean, and now my second wife, Marcia, were brunettes—about the only thing they had in common—but early on, I’d favored blondes like this over brunettes and redheads.
Instead of smiling, the girl frowned and sagged under the weight of my question like a bridge in need of repair. “Well, I split with my boyfriend this morning. I’m two months pregnant, and can’t afford childcare. Other than that, things are just hunky-dory.”
I apologized. I hadn’t meant to open a can of worms.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m quittin’ this place. I need a job with insurance, or need to get on welfare, one.” She stared out at the parking lot and set her jaw. “You know what, I’m quittin’ right now.”
I looked around the place. We were alone. “This minute? Is anyone else coming in?”
“Like I give a shit.”
She punched numbers on her cell phone then waited for the beep. “Ali, this is Carly. I just wanted to let you know I quit. That’s right, Sugar, I’m gone. I’ve had all your bull I’m taking. The keys are under the mat.”
She stuffed her purse with cigarette packs and candy bars.
“Are you paying for that?”
“Listen, Mister, is there any chance I can get a ride? I don’t have bus money and I’m too wore out to walk.”
It wasn’t part of my plan, but I felt a certain responsibility. After all, it was my question in search of a smile that had set her off. “Is it far?”
“Other side of the Interstate.”
I supposed I could have my adventure there as well as here. Who knew, maybe I’d have a better adventure. “All right. If you’re sure.”
“Oh, I’m sure. Once my mind’s made up, I’m sure.”
By now, the sun burned warm. I lowered the top on my BMW while Carly locked up. She came around and stepped inside. Her dress slipped above her knees. When I tried a glance, her eyes caught me looking. She didn’t seem to mind.
She stroked the soft leather seats like she was petting a dog. “I bet this car’s fast.”
To show her how fast, I popped the clutch and laid rubber into the street. “By the way,” I said, “I’m Morris.”
“Nice to meet you, Morris. Were you on your way to work?”
I explained I was a retired lawyer who’d devoted a career to helping wealthy people preserve their riches from the tax man. She seemed impressed, so I laid it on. The more wealth I’d preserved, the more they’d paid me, and I’d preserved a lot of wealth in my day.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Moved down from Chicago three years ago.”
“So, you fight with your wife this morning? That why you’re out running around?”
“I’m playing hooky.”
The truth was I read, played golf, gardened, and donated time to charity. I told Carly that since retiring I wrote novels and traveled the world.
Without bothering to ask, she lit a cigarette for both of us, wetting my filter tip between her lips. “Are you famous?”
“In some circles. Smoking’s not the best for your baby, you know.”
“I’m givin’ it up once I get through this mess with my boyfriend.”
I stopped at a light on the bridge, surprised at how natural it felt to hold a cigarette again, how good it tasted after all this time, even if it did make me a little dizzy.
“This baby isn’t his, you know.” Carly flicked ashes onto the street.
“That why he left?”
“Bryce didn’t leave. I threw his sorry ass out. He’s so stupid he thinks it’s his.”
My first marriage spawned two daughters. They’d lived with their mother following the divorce, and I’d missed out on the day-to-day work of guiding my girls into womanhood. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t resist offering advice now. “Life will be much easier if you have a partner.”
I hoped it was true.
Carly tucked her legs beneath her on the seat. “Well, not Bryce or that other asshole. Anyway, your light just changed, Morris.”
Our town, north of Charlotte, was divided by the Interstate. The west side, where I lived, sported greenways, boutiques, and McMansions. The east side, where Carly lived, retained vestiges of the original mill town. The mill had closed, the jobs outsourced overseas, but the worker’s shotgun houses still stood. Recent renters hadn’t been kind to them. Paint peeled, porches groaned, and lawns lay bare. Broken toys and surly dogs kept watch. Carly’s place was behind the Food Lion.
She perked up as we approached. “That’s Bryce. Sumbitch is stealin’ my stuff.”
I slowed to a stop. Carly climbed out of my car and stalked across the yard. She was half-way to the porch when a burly man backed out the front door carrying one end of a sofa. She got in his face and gave him what for. He stared straight ahead, not even acknowledging her presence. By the time he started down the stairs, another big fellow emerged with the other end of the sofa. Carly tore him a new one. The men loaded the sofa into the bed of the red pick-up and went back inside. She rummaged around the carport, returning with a can of spray paint. Starting with the hood, she painted black zig-zag patterns on that shiny red.
One of the men walked out with a large flat screen TV in his arms. He lowered it onto the porch then sprinted to where Carly painted the headlights. He grabbed her arm, stood her up, and ripped the paint can from her hand. She took a swing, but he ducked. She swung again, and he pushed her to the ground. That’s when I got out of the car.
“Hold on,” I said. “There’s no need for that.”
By now the other big fellow was on the porch holding a faux- leather chair that likely weighed more than me. He dropped it where he stood. “Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“He’s my lawyer.” Carly was on her feet again, brushing off her dress.
Both men stared at me. All I knew about family law and domestic disputes I’d learned by going through my own divorce. That didn’t prevent me from speaking up. “Unless you’ve got a court order, you can’t just take this property. And if you touch this girl again, she’ll own your paycheck for the rest of your life.”
The guy who’d pushed Carly to the ground jammed his hands into his jeans pocket and rocked on his heels. “What about my truck? See what she’s gone and done?”
“I’d recommend you get your own lawyer.”
“That’s right,” Carly said. “Get your own damn lawyer.”
The two men conferred. They pulled the sofa off the truck bed and left it lying upside-down in the yard. Before roaring off the driver leaned out the window. “I was you, Mister Legal Eagle, I’d watch my back. She’s meaner than a junk yard dog.”
Carly stood next to me “That was Bryce and his brother.”
I helped her carry her stuff inside, her house a reflection of the ongoing wreck of her life. Magazines, CDs, and beer cans proliferated. I couldn’t imagine bringing a baby into the mix.
We sat at a three-legged kitchen table. “Look,” I said. “I’m not your lawyer, but I can recommend one. A restraining order will prevent this sort of thing.”
“I’ll shoot him, he bothers me again.”
“You have a gun?”
“Damn straight.” She opened her purse. Nestled among the cigarettes and candy bars was a nifty, little thirty-eight special.
“You can get in trouble with that.”
“I don’t need no gun to get in trouble. Anyway, thanks for takin’ up for me with Bryce.”
“He’s likely to come back, if you don’t get a restraining order.”
She sat forward, forearms on her knees. Her dress dipped in front, giving me a full view of her breasts. “Can I get you something to drink?’
Drinking with strangers wasn’t part of my repertoire, but I decided to make an exception in Carly’s case. I asked for a glass of sweet tea.
“So, where you traveled lately?” she asked from the refrigerator.
“For your novel writin’, and all.”
“Oh, that. Sure, just last month I was in Borneo. Just got back.” Borneo, the first place to pop into my mind.
She handed me my tea, sat down, and crossed her legs, white panties flashing.
“That where they have them nekkid tribesmen?”
“They’re mostly naked.”
She sat back and smiled. “You seem kindly nervous. Do I make you nervous, Morris?”
I was trying to think of a response when her cell phone sang out. She took one look at the LCD and jumped to her feet. “Come on. We gotta go. Ali’s on his way.” Ali, the guy she’d called to say she was quitting her job.
This seemed like good time to make my exit, but when I told her she was on her own with Ali, she threw her arms around me. “Lord have mercy,” she whimpered. “Don’t leave me now.”
The girl was unraveling like a nylon stocking snagged on a nail. When she couldn’t be consoled, I relented, agreeing to stay until Ali arrived.
She stepped away, wild-eyed. “Are you kidding? We can’t stay. He’ll kill us both.”
“Calm down. If things turn rough, I’ll call the cops.”
She grabbed the front of my shirt with both hands. “Goddamnit, Morris. He doesn’t care about that. He’s fuckin’ crazy.”
I couldn’t believe things were as desperate as she made out, but there was no point in taking chances. I asked what she wanted to do.
She took my hand, and I did my best to keep up. By the time we reached my car a silver Humvee was turning onto the street. I fired the engine, dropped the BMW into gear, and popped the clutch. We zipped past the Humvee, headed in the opposite direction. Carly flipped the driver the bird. He held something in his hand. It might have been a cell phone. It might have been a weapon. He did a dust-kicking Y-turn in her yard. My heart hadn’t beat this fast since I’d birdied the seventh hole at Lake Forest in ’95.
I blew through a four-way stop, cut through the parking lot of the Food Lion, and lambed it to the Interstate. I glimpsed the Humvee in my rearview when I wheeled down the ramp. I ran through the gears, driving north and weaving in and out of traffic. I peeled off at the next exit and headed east. I took a side road and tucked the BMW behind a dumpster at the new Regional Hospital. When the Humvee didn’t show, I drove us to the nearest Starbucks.
We sat outside, soaking up the sun and catching our breath.
“All right, what’s with that guy? Is he the father of your child?”
She lit two more cigarettes. “Are you kiddin’? I’d never let someone like that touch me.” She said she owed Ali a chunk of money and was working at his gas station to repay the debt.
“Maybe you can patch things up.”
She had a sexy way of sucking the smoke back into her mouth just as it exited her lips then exhaling it through her nostrils. “You don’t patch things up with Ali.”
“Are we talking drugs?”
“What do you think, Morris?”
“So, what now?”
She shook her head behind a curtain of smoke. “I need to lay low until me and Jimmy can get my stuff. They’ll be watching my place.”
“Hell, no. He’s just some guy I met in rehab.” She blew smoke rings then sent them marching across the patio like soldiers off to war. “You probably think I’m a real slut.”
“You’re just energetic.”
“Anyway, I stopped using drugs when I got knocked up. I aim to have this baby.”
Between the coffee and the cigarettes, my ears buzzed. “Listen, I can take you to the police. Maybe if you explain your situation they can help.”
Carly chewed her lower lip. “If I could get to my sister’s house, I could stay there until this blows over with Ali.”
Driving to the sister’s house, nearly forty miles away as she described it, was more adventure than I’d bargained for. But unlike some folks I know, I’m not the kind of man who cuts and runs just because the going gets rough. When I agreed to give Carly a lift, she kissed me on the cheek. “You’re a nice man, Morris. I gotta to pee, but I’ll be right back.”
She flounced away, hips rolling beneath that thin cotton. I leaned against the hood of my BMW, smoking a cigarette in my shades, giving the world my best Steve McQueen, and wondering where my wife was and who she was with. Carly kept me waiting longer than expected, so I bought coffee and Danish. When she returned, she’d applied make-up, brushed her hair and pulled it up and back.
“I don’t know what I’d done without you today,” she said. “Don’t take this wrong, but I’m glad you had a fight with your wife.”
“I didn’t fight with my wife.”
We settled into our seats, and Carly picked out a country-western station. I got back on the Interstate, headed north. She leaned across the console, massaged the back of my neck, and ran her fingers through my hair. After a while, she whispered, soft lips brushing my ear. “What would your wife think if she saw us together?”
“We’re not together. I’m just helping out. Besides, I don’t think she’d care that much.”
“I knew it. Things a little cool between you and the wifey, Morris?”
“By the time she’s my age, I’ll be looking at eighty.”
“That’s really old. I bet I’ll never make it that long.”
“Twenty years ago all we wanted was twenty good years.”
“At least, she’ll be there to take care of you when you’re old.”
“Yeah, but I won’t be there for her.”
“Maybe she’ll find someone else.”
“Maybe she should while she’s still got her looks.”
Carly punched me on the shoulder. “Oh, hell, Morris. She could die first. No one knows.”
“I think she’s having an affair.”
She gave me a look. “You think, or you know?”
I explained how I’d considered hiring a private detective but decided against it. If my wife was having an affair at least she cared enough to lie, and I could hope that the golf pro would drop her the minute he made his next conquest. On the other hand, if she wasn’t having an affair, then I’d look like a damn fool for paying a detective to prove my suspicions wrong.
“That’s weasely, Morris.”
“You might feel differently when you’re older.”
“You sound like my daddy.”
I was probably old enough to be her granddaddy, but I wasn’t about to point that out. Instead, I asked if she was planning to call her sister.
“I just as soon surprise her,” Carly said. Then she placed a hand on my thigh and gave a squeeze. “Sorry about your wife.”
I didn’t push her hand away, but I did say I didn’t think that was such a good idea.
“What’s the matter? Your wife’s leavin’ you, anyway.”
“You don’t know that. Besides, you’re going to be a mother.”
She released her grip on my thigh. “I know, and it scares the shit out of me. You got kids, Morris?”
I told her about my first marriage. Jean had been a good-hearted woman and pretty enough. We got married, and then I put my head down and went to work. We bought a house and cared for babies. We juggled finances and made friends.
“But did she light you up?”
I shook my head. If she had, the light went out early on.
Carly frowned. “You should never have married someone didn’t light you up.”
“I wanted credibility and stability.”
“What about your new wife?”
I went on to explain how I’d met Marcia. She was a newly-minted partner in another law firm while I was a seasoned veteran. Our paths sometimes crossed professionally, and business meetings could spill into lunches. We were both unhappy in our marriages. We both wanted something more..
“Oh, hell, who am I kidding?” I said. “It was love at first sight. I mean, we were crazy about each other.”
Carly punched me on the shoulder again. “You had an affair, Morris. Well, you horny toad.”
“People said it wouldn’t last, but we’ve been married fifteen years.”
“My average is more like fifteen minutes.”
It was none of my business, but I gave her my speech about responsibility, and the importance of choosing wisely.
“I guess you learned the hard way.”
She had me there.
We left the Interstate short of Hickory and took a back road. As we climbed into the foothills, the temperature dropped and I had to raise the top. After a few miles, Carly directed me onto another back road, and then another.
“What’s your sister do for a living?” I asked.
Carly licked her lips. “Oh, you probably don’t want to know.”
“That’s kindly a problem.”
After a while, we turned onto a lonesome gravel drive and followed it along a wooded fencerow until we came to a clearing. To the rear of the clearing sat a mobile home and a ramshackle carport.
“You wait here.” Carly said.
She went to the door and knocked. After a few minutes, a slightly older, worn-out version of Carly appeared. She held a baby on her hip while two toddlers clung to her skirts and peeked outside. The sisters talked through the screen door. After a few minutes, Carly returned to the car accompanied by a man with long hair and a beard. Despite the cool temperature, he wore only a grimy t-shirt over his beer belly.
I lowered the passenger’s side window and Carly leaned through. She looked grim. “Morris, they’re going to need a little money to let me stay.”
“Who’s he?” I nodded at the man.
“Morris, this is Nick.”
“How much money?”
Nick pushed Carly aside, opened the door, reached across the seat, and grabbed me by the arm. “How much you got?”
A shot of adrenaline jacked my heart. I struggled to escape his grip, but he was too strong. I was ready to give in when I heard Carly say, “Nick, you asshole, let go, or I’ll blow your damn balls off.”
He released his grip and backed out slowly. Carly held her thirty-eight on him. “Grab hold of that tree yonder, and don’t let go until we’re gone.”
Nick didn’t like it, but did as he was told.
“You’ve got my permission to shoot him,” Carly’s sister called from behind the screen door.
“I will if he moves.”
“She’s trouble with a capital T, mister,” Nick called over his shoulder.
Carly got into the car. “This was a bad decision. Drive, Morris, just drive.”
Ten minutes later, she returned the thirty-eight to her purse and confessed that Nick was the father of her unborn child. My hands still shook.
“I’m sorry,” Carly said. “I didn’t know he was going to be there.”
“Your sister know about you and Nick?”
“It was just that one stupid time.”
I drove to Hickory and used the GPS to find a Residence Inn. I prepaid a two-week stay and gave Carly the two-fifty from the ATM and the rest of my cigarettes. I handed her an old business card and wrote my cell phone number on the back. “You should go to the police about Ali. Call me, if you need help.”
“Would you really have shot Nick?”
“Right in the balls.”
We were standing in the lobby, CNN playing on the TV. I offered my hand, but she tiptoed up for a kiss on the lips. When she stepped away, she squinted those baby-blues.
“You want to come upstairs for a little while?”
I suppose we’d been building to something all day. Maybe this was it. “Nah,” I said. “Better not, I guess.”
“You still love your wife, Morris?”
Her question set me back. I’d been so concerned about whether Marcia still loved me, I hadn’t thought to ask myself if I still loved her. Now, with that question flashing neon red between Carly and me, I had no choice but to answer. “I do. Yes, I do.”
“Then you better go get her and quit this fucking around.”
I reached out, pulled her to my chest, and gave her a hug. I held on too long, not saying a word.
She unhitched herself from my embrace and cleared her throat. “Alright, now, that’s enough of that shit.”
“You going to be okay?”
I slapped at the one hot tear that got away. “I’m good. I guess I better get going.”
She walked me to the car.
“Don’t hesitate to call, if you need help,” I told her.
“Oh, hell, I’ve been in tighter spots than this. You’re the one I’m worried about, Morris.”
“I said I was good.”
“You go get your wife, now.”
I fired the BMW and set off, leaving Carly where she stood. The warm morning had evaporated, and clouds were moving in. It was early afternoon by the time I reached our quaint main street with the college on one side and the cute shops and restaurants on the other. My wife’s car was nowhere in sight. On a hunch, I swung past Jack’s Tap. She sat on the patio, two glasses of wine on the table and that damn golf pro across from her.
I parked the BMW and walked toward them.
They stopped chatting when they saw me coming.
Gary V. Powell’s short stories and flash fiction have been widely published, both online and in print, most recently at Connotation Press, Prime Number, Molotov Cocktail, Thrice Fiction, and Carvezine. Several of his stories have placed or been selected as finalists in national contests. His first novel, “Lucky Bastard,” released in December 2012, is available through Main Street Rag Press at http://www.mainstreetrag.com/GPowell.html
–Foreground Art by Peter Lamata
–Background Art by Diana Cretu