UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Jack rounded the long sloping curve past the boarded up Swedish Lutheran Church on County Road D. He spotted the blonde walking on the gravel shoulder of the two-lane blacktop. He knew he’d find her there. He’d passed her ’84
Jack had seen the car in town last weekend at the Pork Producers Chop Fry. He’d noted the Escort’s fine-looking driver, watched her in the batting cage, heard her laughing on the dance floor as she’d tried to polka. She had danced with that Mexican, Ricardo, who got beat down by Jack’s crew after the White Front closed Saturday night. “It’s okay for those beaners to work the fields,” Mac Winship told Jack, “but when they start takin’ our women . . ..” Jack didn’t disagree, but six against one wasn’t his way of doing things. He worked alone. The Mexican would be laid up for some time. And that’s why, at five a.m. on Tuesday morning, the wiry blonde was walking an empty country road alone. Maybe I’ll introduce myself, he thought.
In the west, clouds foreshadowed more rain. It was the fourth straight day of scattered thunderstorms. Fred Bender, the canning factory foreman, had sent the night shift home early because they’d run short of corn. Wet fields left acres of ripe corn unpicked because the harvesters and trucks bogged down in the mud. Jack didn’t worry about the lost overtime. If the rain held off, he’d be working twelve-hour shifts soon enough.
He slowed down. Don’t be stupid, he told himself. He was on parole. Anything stupid meant he would go back for another three years. Three more years for doing nothing. He was bitter about how it all had played out.
Jack watched the woman walk, temporarily losing her balance on the loose gravel. Maybe she’s been drinking, he thought. All the better. He slowed the truck down to a crawl. He needed a plan. This early in the morning, there’d be no witnesses. And Bobbie didn’t expect him for another three hours because she didn’t know the shift had been cut short. Time to get acquainted. I know a place.
As he slowed to a stop beside the blonde, Jack pulled on his driving gloves. The cherry red F150 had racing stripes and a sunroof he’d installed himself. A large number three decal filled the center of the rear window. He’d put it up on blocks for the two-and-a-half years he’d been in prison. He didn’t want Bobbie putting on a lot of miles, not the way she drove. “I’ll be back soon enough,” he’d told her. “And I’ll need a truck.” She had made the payments and taken care of his boys. He didn’t ask how she got the money. Bobbie had a way of getting things done. Jack was the one with dreams. Upon his release he’d bought new tires on credit, but Bobbie made him remove the gun rack. “You’re not supposed to own guns on parole.” He knew she wasn’t worried about the gun rack. She was punishing him for what he did with that high school girl, Brittiany. If he had a good corn pack, maybe he’d buy Bobbie a ring. Her butt’s too big, but she’s got a good heart.
Jack pushed his sunglasses up onto his forehead and put on a stupid grin. “I’m your new best friend,” he projected as he rolled down the power window on the passenger side and called out, “Having some trouble?”
The blonde looked suspicious (she’d glanced back when his truck slowed down), but she had limited choices. She was alone on a road with no traffic until almost seven when the day shift began at the Seneca plant. If the rain holds off, they’ll have corn by then. The blonde was one of the migrants, up from Texas, working odd hours. She’d probably been called in for the cleanup crew while the line was shut down. Maybe they’d offered her work on the cutters if she took the scud jobs, too. The Boss is always doing shit like that.
“Can I help?” he asked in a casually rehearsed voice. Before he’d served time, Jack acted in the community theater. During the winters, when there was little work in the warehouse, he ran a crew and studied his lines while a thousand cases of creamed corn an hour ran through his labeling machine. At community theater he’d met Brittiany. She played Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest. He played Earnest.
Jack looked at the blonde. Even in work clothes she looked good. She’s trying to decide, he thought. She wonders if I helped beat down her man. He cleared his throat. “Ma’am,” he asked again, “can I help?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I just need some water. There’s a farm house down the road a bit. It’s a good morning for a walk.”
“The Johnson place?” he laughed. “That’s another mile. Plus, judging from those clouds, you’re going to get mighty wet before you find water.” He leaned forward to get a better look at her. She was light-skinned and wore a blue work shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, with the sleeves rolled up. Her breasts were small, but no one would mistake her for a man. Her jeans were faded but clean, ragged from hard use. Her bottle blonde hair was barely brushed. She wore no makeup. Why dress up to operate a power scrubber?
In town last weekend, watching her at a distance as she danced with the Mexican, Jack thought she might be in her twenties. Close up, noting the lines around her eyes, he guessed she was over forty. Almost used up. He hesitated, wondering if she was worth the risk.
“The walk’s no problem,” she told him as she looked inside the truck. He wore the white shirt and tie of a Seneca crew chief. His hair was neatly cut and recently combed. He was in his mid-thirties, no teenaged kid. He could see her sizing him up. The truck was spotless. There was no NRA decal on the windshield, no Confederate flag on the antenna, no heavy metal band sticker on the bumper, no beer bottles on the dash. He looked like the town geek, not a drifter or a slasher or a rapist. He didn’t even look like an ex-con. Jack wished he had left the gloves off. She shrugged, “I doubt if anyone will begrudge me some water.”
“That’s true,” he said. He put the truck in gear. “Suit yourself.” He rolled up the window and drove away.
That always hooked them. Jack’s apparent willingness to drive on, to not force himself on women, always disarmed them. With Brittiany it was easier than that. She made the first move. She asked Jack for a ride home the third night of play rehearsals. She told him he had a nice truck. By the time he found out she was fifteen, he’d already done her once in the cab and twice on a blanket in the truck’s new bed-liner. Bobbie smelled the girl’s perfume on him and made Jack sleep on the couch. By opening night, he was still sleeping on the couch, and Brittany had near wore him out exploring new sexual positions.
At the cast party, Jack told Brittiany he was calling it off. That’s when the manure hit the bailer. The sheriff came calling the next day. Statutory rape was the charge. Piss on her. Jack served twenty-nine months in a state facility. He registered as a sex offender and got banned from coaching his boys’ pony league baseball team. Brittiany got an internship with the county attorney and was named Kolacky Queen. Piss on her.
Jack drove almost a quarter mile to the intersection with Minnesota Highway 13. He paused, then made a u-turn and drove back. The blonde hadn’t moved. She’d been watching his truck the whole time. He rolled down his window. “I just remembered. There’s water right around the curve. That old country church is boarded up, but I bet the pump in the basement still works, and with all the rain I know the cistern will be full.”
She faced him with her arms folded across her chest, but as he watched her eyes, she blinked. “The church seems like a long shot.”
Got her. Jack smiled. “Nope. I was on the church council three years ago when we voted to merge with First Lutheran in Green Lake. I still have the church key on my ring.” She unfolded her arms, but hesitated. “I can take you to the church, or, if you’re uncomfortable with that, I can give you my key and you can walk back there on your own. Give me the key back some time at the plant.”
She hesitated. “No, that would be silly.” As she walked over to the truck, raindrops appeared on Jack’s windshield. “I’d appreciate the lift.”
He smiled. The church will work out real fine. Jack hadn’t lied about the church council. No one would think twice about his truck parked at the building. They might even thank him for checking on the place. He opened the passenger door.
As she got in, she forced a smile. “I appreciate the help. There aren’t many good Samaritans any more.”
The woman closed the door and fastened her seat belt. “I’m no good Samaritan,” he told her. “But I always stop for strangers.” Jack clicked the power door locks. She jumped at the sound.
He put the truck in gear and headed for the church. Jack glanced at the woman and saw her trembling. “I can turn down the air conditioning if you’re cold, ma’am.”
She shook her head. “No.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I’ve just had a bad run of luck, Mr. Miller.” He glanced down at his shirt. He was still wearing his nametag. That wasn’t very bright. Probably the first thing she did when she got in the cab was to make note of his name. There was no turning back if he took her in the church basement. If he wanted to stay out of jail, she couldn’t leave that basement. “My name’s Rhonda. Ramirez. Rhonda Ramirez.”
“I’m Jack Miller.” Now he was in all the way. It don’t matter she knows my name. Jack had never hurt anyone. Not this way. But jail had hardened him in ways he was still trying to understand. Jack wondered how long he could keep her alive before he’d have to kill her.
“I’ve seen you around the plant,” she said. Jack imagined what he would do if he had Brittiany in the truck instead of Rhonda. He’d seen men do things to other men in prison and imagined doing them to her in the church basement. He put on his turn signal and turned into the drive. He looked up and down the road. All clear. He parked the truck and turned to Rhonda, “Too bad about what happened to your boyfriend Saturday night.” He patted her leg, and she recoiled at his touch. “Sorry.” He removed his hand. He didn’t want her to bolt.
Her voice hardened. “That wasn’t my boyfriend. That was my husband.”
Jack looked down at her left hand. There was a cheap gold band on her ring finger.
“He going to be all right?”
“The punks broke two ribs. His right eye’s real bad, but the doc doesn’t think he’ll lose it. Don’t know when he can to go back to work. The boss said he’s got no work for a man who can’t do lifting. I got extra work on the cleaning crew, but money’s tight. Don’t know what we’ll do when the boys come.”
“We have two sons, Miquel and Thomas. Named after their grandfathers.”
Jack unbuckled his seatbelt. “I’ve got boys, too,” he said. “Their mom ran off six years ago.” Why am I telling her this? He removed his sunglasses and set them on the dash.
Rhonda watched his every move. “That’s tough,” she said, “raising two kids alone.”
“I’ve got a friend. Bobbie. She helps with the boys. The boys don’t mind.”
“My boys with my Mom, but we promised they could join us when we found a place. We rented a nice trailer house Saturday morning. Over by New Prague. Don’t know what I’ll do now.” Jack looked into her eyes and saw her fear. She’d run out of choices. He turned off the truck. “I guess, we’d better get that water,” she said. Rhonda reached for the door handle.
“You got pictures of your boys?”
She hesitated. “I do.” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a slender billfold. She removed a wrinkled picture that she passed to him. The two boys were sitting on tethered ponies, probably at some county fair. Ricardo and Rhonda stood beside them. Everyone was smiling.
“Yes.” She took back the picture and put it away. She didn’t ask to see his boys. Maybe she didn’t believe he had boys. “Guess we’d better get that water so you can be on your way.” She tried to open the truck door, but the power locks prevented her.
“Tell you what...,” Jack said as he slowly removed his gloves. “You’re shivering.” More rain pelted the windshield. “You stay here and keep dry. I’ll get the water.” He turned the truck back on and adjusted the heater to warm her. He flipped off the power locks and stepped from the truck, avoiding eye contact.
“You got any pictures?”
“I got lots of pictures.” He pulled out his billfold and slapped it on the driver’s seat. “You going to be all right in the truck alone?” He saw a car approaching in the distance, running just ahead of the thunderstorm.
“I will,” she said. Rhonda reached under her pants leg and removed a pearl-handled knife. She flipped opened the long thin blade with an easy snap of her wrist. “Anyone tries anything funny, I’ll cut ‘em.”
“Yah. That’s good. That’s what my Bobbie would do.” He shut the truck door as the curtain of rain hit and ran for the church door. He hoped he’d find a bucket inside.Paul Lewellan teaches Business Writing at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He’s searching for an agent for his latest novel, No More White Houses, about a Kent State style shooting set against a backdrop of racism. His best critic is his CPA, Pamela, who also happens to be his wife. Recent publications include South Dakota Review, Opium, Rose & Thorn, and Big Muddy.
© 2008 Underground Voices