Escapee of a life beguiled,
Gasping in a pool of rile.
Struggling for a floating log,
The life vest of a drowning dog.
Begging strength to free chilled feet,
And lift dead weight to sunlight meet.
The nearness of the vanquished tomb,
Must in the soul forever loom.
Her hands and arms were starting to look like soft scar tissue from leaning over the blue flames that licked their tongues of orange at her when she reached for the eggs-over- easy. It was an endless parade of specials for the day---bordered on the left by butt-pinching truck-herding cave men and on the right by screaming Little Neds who had long since defeated any hope of discipline by threatening to call 911.
Carl had promised in monotone he would add help during rush hours, but like all his other promises, they went into the busboy's can with the gnawed porkchop bones and the pile of uneaten grits where cigarette butts stood at attention. She was resigned that it would always be just the three of them---making the words on the menu come alive in that roadside diner---for as long as there was paying clientele. Now, Carl feared it would all be swept into the red dirt wake of the new Interstate---the if-you-elect-me promise that snaked its way from Making Good Time, Nevada to Toodle-Doo, West-by-God Virginia.
Self-celebratory Reba Nell Riggs deserved a better fate than Carl was able to scoop out of the chili pot. When they exchanged their for-better-or-worse's, his promise had implied that they would emerge to the better no later than when the diner note got paid off. But who knew then that the big printing plant that held half the town in its embrace of co-dependency would run out of customers. The paperless society had been a myth---until computers taught them its awful truth---the world of 'E' was upon them. Gone in nanoseconds were the invoices, purchase orders, checks, and yes---gasoline could be bought at the pump with a plastic card with no paper receipt. After that, the town half died and people moved away to probably where the plastic got made. But Cleburne Planters and Merchants Bank still asked for the beans and rice payment each month on the first, and Carl had to refinance the Tinker Bell Diner at new interest rates.
Then, when the chicken gut-pulling plant moved to Mexico where buried entrails were more welcome, he refinanced it again. And now they had the prospect of the cruel Interstate. Carl was already slicking up the number-two lead in his pencil to moniker another dotted line at the bank. By her calculations, they started paying for the damn place when Christ was a corporal, and they would make their last payment in the shadows of his Rapture.
She had seen him twice now in less than two hours. He had left, then returned with a newspaper---sitting alone in the corner booth on the side with the tear in the vinyl that Carl had surgically repaired with duct tape. He looked forty. Reba had perfected the art of guessing age from little clues that people unknowingly emit. The little gold cross that framed his Adam's apple in the portal of hair that led to his chest was a sign she read as past-thirty. The sideburns that bled to his earlobe said not-fifty. The absence of protruding nose-hair said not forty-five. The white ring of unsunned skin where a wedding band once lived validated her bet of forty---with its mid-life itch.
"More coffee? Decided on anything yet?" She was uncharacteristically nervous.
His eyes rose slowly from the menu line that spoke so eloquently of deceased pigs inside blankets.
"Yeah. Just grits and sausage---and yes-please on more coffee."
He didn't say yeah baby, yeah honey, or yeah toots, or yeah darlin'. There was hope.
Her trembling hand poured the coffee, overfilling by just enough to create a rivulet of brown that trailed down the cup into the napkin that lined his saucer, creating the newest Rorschach.
She jotted his order in café shorthand, and put her hand on her now-disjointed hip and gushed out the line he was expecting.
"Where are you heading?"
"North Carolina. I'm hoping like hell I can get on the new Interstate at the next town. I fought construction yesterday for eighty miles."
"You can't---not until McComb. That's fifty miles---or about an hour---unless you get behind the National Guard boys. It's play war weekend in Mississippi. Anyway---grits it is. Link or patty on that sausage?"
"Umm.Linnnk." His smile suggested that he might have wanted patty but couldn 't miss the opportunity to slide the word "link" through his beautifully white teeth.
Carl burned the links on one side, but turned their black stripes down. She had to curl the plate between his raised newspaper and the white shirt that said Chaps on its breast pocket.
"Nope. Trying to quit anything pasty white that's been altered by chemicals," he said, lowering the page that was meaningless NFL highlight trivia from two days ago.
She studied the remark and his expressionless face. Now she wasn't so sure of him. Maybe he was over forty. She moved away, putting her hip in extra low gear. There's a million guys like this, she thought. But they all eventually get around to what is foremost on their mind. Hickle-Tickle-Dickle-Skidoo.
By eight that night, she had convinced Carl to close up with the busboy so she could go home. The day had created a headache that swelled and pulsated through her brain as if it had been infused with an Electrolux bag. She took two Excedrin on the way out, leaving Carl waving a packet of B.C. Powder like a surrender flag.
"It's better than that hopeless stuff you take." his words trailed off into liver and onion air and ended with something about King Richard Petty.
It was her habit to glance at the parking lot of Kudzu-Country Motel ever since she had seen Deputy Mecklin's Town Car there one Friday night when she knew his wife was busy at Cleburne General pushing up their fourth cherub. "We've got an emergency down by old Snider Mill," he probably said to the attending nurse who knew how it was when duty called. She, after all, should 've been home watching Star Trek tapes by then.
Her foot touched the brake gently, and it responded in kind, as if asking her for confirmation to stop. At The Kudzu she saw what could be the man from that morning---at least it was the same kind and color of Firebird Trans Am. She circled through the parking lot twice, the gravel crackling her route like the din of distant applause. Soon, his face emerged, spotlighted in the yellow bug-proof light above door twenty-two.
She stopped---in defiance of her headache and the good judgement she had always claimed to have. But she was safe---Carl always took the shortcut through Haggerty Slough and would not be passing this way.
"Well---Mr. North Carolina-bound. Didn't make it to the Interstate. Didn't even make it much out of Cleburne. Thinking about coming back tomorrow for more grits and giving us a second chance at the sausage?"
He rubbed the tip of his nose and squinted his eyes to almost closed. "No offense, but I think your cook has a bias against reasonably-prepared food."
"Watch out now, that's my better half," she said, trying to moderate her nervous laugh.
"Well, a half's a helluva lot better than a whole in this case. I'm just having tea and crumpets. Want to join me and catch Magnum P.I. on the telly?" His finger was crooked with a counterfeit curl of aristocracy. It made her laugh.
She stepped out of the frightfully dull Volkswagen, taking a moment to caress the curves of the Trans Am, which sat in sparkling glow----its sheen reflecting each of the stars that had come to that spot to watch.
She chose the corner of the bed, as he resumed what had been his position beside the Formica bedside table spotted with slender cigarette burns that many a tenant had first thought to be roaches. He was pouring from J.T.S. Brown---a minor league bourbon being made tolerable with neatly-aligned clips of lemon rind.
"You aren't going to make a tired lady beg are you?"
He reached for the remaining plastic cup and tugged at its sanitary wrapping with his teeth. He poured three fingers, filling the rest with Cleburne's-Best iron-ore water, and garnished its lip from his line of folded lemon peel.
If he toasts two ships in the night, I'm outta here, she thought.
"Here's to North Carolina and a spilling of the generosities of mankind," he said, clacking the two cups together with no resulting sound, save for a single dislodged chip of ice that skidded across the Formica.
She lifted her cup a second time, begging for his interpretation of the toast, which did not come.
"Well, sir, I've drank to more poetic lines, that's for sure." Her eyes sank to half-mast as she let the J.T.S. Brown weld its pathway down.
Half a quart of J.T.S. later, they had exchanged their way through most of their individual diaries.
He was once an investigator for the GBI---the State of Georgia's second-string team to the FBI. He had revealed chapters from his long book of adventures with them---including the time he coordinated L.B.J.'s visit to the Peach State for a leader's summit with Billy Graham. He talked about how L.B.J. had that "War Wagon"--- filled with booze and mixings that followed in the presidential procession---and how Billy was offered a scotch at the first red light.
And another story---about the idiots who used a Canon copier to counterfeit twenties and fifties---cashing the bills on a driving tour from Valdosta to Rome. They stopped in Columbus and the ringleader sent one of his helpers into a McDonald's to break a twenty. The fool came back with nineteen dollars worth of burgers and fries. The boss slapped the guy around and sent him back with a bogus fifty. "Just buy a milkshake and bring back all the change. It's the clean money we need." You guessed it---McDonald's gave the man his original fake twenty back in change. Eventually they were all found sprawled out like a fan on a north Georgia logging road. They apparently had an argument over the money, and in the ensuing gunfight, had killed one another. The bogus money was still in the trunk.
His life was colorful, but could have been trumped by Reba Nell's. She started life without parents, and through an adoption group at a Fayetteville, Arkansas church, had been placed with a tent-show evangelist family led by a slippery guy named Rusty Donahue. He got his start fleecing the faithful when he traveled with a circus, where he was con-man extraordinaire and master burglar of circus-patron automobiles. He sold eggshell-thin Rolex watches and cardboard Kodaks to the corn-crop unsuspecting, lacing his spiel with the scriptures. Soon he noticed that the more scripture he cited, the more coins he ignited. So the sideshow gave way to a salvation tent, and Miss Reba grew up chanking a tambourine to the melody of Rock of Ages, and collecting his offerings in her gold-painted lard bucket.
Years later, when the tour played in Cleburne, she met Carl in a laudromat and fell hard for the honesty that pooled within his big eyes, and the lure of dropping her anchor off the prow of the Rusty Donahue Salvation Ship. She had enough of the endless cycle of tent pitching and tent stitching. Carl's glistening dream of the Tinker Bell Diner was like a love chant in the dark---and her ears had almost rotated sideways to take it all in. Two days later, Rusty left her there with a hundred-dollar bill and the blue choir robe she had worn over her cut-off jeans. She would remember his brief parting words from the rolled- down window of the tent truck. She would swear later that she saw a tear falling from his eye.
"I love you honey, but we know when the season's over."
With that, and a thumbs-up, he rolled away---leading the two Ford Econoline vans and the flatbed pew truck down the concrete ribbon that had always been her world.
She looked across the room at this man named Price who was gently stirring a final J.T.S. Brown with his index finger. Their eyes connected with the soul equivalent of lock-and- load.
The warm roar of the Trans Am sheared the air---breaking her away into a new freedom like the parting of old Rusty Donahue's Red Sea. In the safe confines of that Cleburne motel room, he had told her his darkest secrets, then beckoned her to join his adventure. If she had any reservations about crime and punishment, Price's reassurances covered them like a fire blanket.
He made his living "kiting the counter," a variation on a counterfeiting scheme he had stumbled upon during his time with the GBI. The procedure was simple, and he was in his second year of perfecting it---with never once a mishap. He believed it to be foolproof. Everything he needed would fit neatly into a couple of legal-size briefcases that took up less room in the Trans Am trunk than the spare tire. There were no weapons, no guns---nothing that would pop, bang, or resonate vile gas. There were only Price Cooper's white-collar supplies---clean to the touch and smell.
He explained that the little machine about the size of a telephone was a Burroughs Imprinter---something banks use to encode the clumsy-footed numerals that are called MICR lines at the bottom of checks, money orders, and other payables. They are machine-read magnetic characters that are instructions to automated bank sorting devices---routing money here and there, interpreting the accounts and amounts.
Price would open an account in Bank X with a hundred dollar deposit, then visit the customer kiosk in the center of the lobby and remove a stack of blank deposit slips. He would then spend hours churning out altered replacements---encoding his new account number on the bank's blanks. Then he would then go back to the bank, and switch the now-imprinted ones into the pigeon holes that held the customer supplies in the kiosk.
>From that point it was all technology-automated. As customers filled out deposit slips, ignorant of the MICR encoding already on the forms, the machines dutifully routed the funds into Price's account. He would check his balance over a several-day period until something really nice hit, then clean out his account and be out of town before the local Barney Fife had even started his rounds. By the time the full-circle process of funds clearing had taken place, Price Cooper was already at Bank Y in some other town.
Reba quickly fell into the routine---it reminded her of the ease of her lard-bucket days. She was his picker---the one who collected blank slips from the kiosk. And because it was not an act of violence---not even a ski-mask capped face, she gave no thought to the blue wave that must be swelling in their wake across North Carolina. They were doing seven or eight banks a month as they mastered their cut and run. One legal case was now filled with nothing but hundreds. It was more money than she had ever seen, and at least ten years worth of Tinker Bell, she figured.
And the sex was good and nasty. He understood about hours of saliva-rich foreplay and the merits of two baths a day. Price made her feel like a queen. He was lavish with personal gifts, and his nightly massages of scented baby oil had finally erased all the welts of the cook stove and the white spots on her arms that had festered from popped bacon grease. They stayed at the best motels---a vacation that would not end---tattooed with room service and the best wine lists. In Durham she bought him a jade and diamond cross to replace the simple one he had worn when she first met him. Finally---she had her brand on him---a claim on the total package that was her Gentleman Coop. It was as if Camelot was their keeper---beckoning them into its marble walls and its cascade of bubble baths day after day.
"Sally, how about finding a new deli when we order out next, okay? Christ---these bastards must have a death wish to make the world's lousiest sandwich. And those chips---what'ya think? Soaked overnight in Pamlico Sound?"
"Bitch at me old man, and you can go out and get your own lunch. I'm a sworn agent of the law --not a personal valet to His Lordshit."
He grinned, then returned to the chalkboard-sized map with the pins that serpentined through the Carolinas like the hasty route of a tornado. The pattern was clear. They were focused on population, nothing else. He had looked at enough bank videos to feel like the woman was his sister. She was the one consistent thing that came up. He knew there was a man as well---but he was never caught on video---only her. No disguise, no sunglasses, just a pretty face that sometimes cracked a smile. That face was now in the hands of every bank employee in a twenty-county area in both the Carolinas. The Greenville office of the FBI was charged with its solution---and Stanley Munson was the man who had the most merit badges. Sometimes people underestimated his skill---his paunchy middle with strained shirt buttons and too-short tie was a distraction to his abilities. He broke his cases mostly on the intuition that comes with understanding the criminal thought process---then anticipating the game plan. This one seemed a little too simple for all of its successes. It made him worry about who he might be dealing with.
The first call came at ten in the morning, just after the banks opened in Florence, South Carolina. A security guard was sure he recognized the woman in the flyer, and in a replay of the videotape, the man was sure of it. He was able to describe a certain pair of silver seashell earrings over the phone---ones that Stanley knew about from her other starring roles. He was there in four hours.
He reviewed the film himself, and confirmed that it was indeed the smiling face he knew so well. In a check of the new accounts from that week, he singled out three that caught his eye---all opened with a hundred dollar deposit. He had what he needed to order a six-man backup team to stake out the bank.
The venetian blinds that fronted the bank windows were being adjusted to deflect the three-o'-clock sun when she entered the lobby. Just inside the doorway she stopped. Stanley knew about sixth-sense---when the hair follicles on the rear of one's neck for some reason get erect without stimulation, and the palms of the hands take on a chill that is normally reserved for November. Abruptly she bolted from the bank, crossing the short distance of the portico with its dancing fountain, and into the open door of a bright red Pontiac. The car roared out of the circular drive, bounding over the corner of a flowerbed and wrenching up a clump of marigolds.
With that quick start and a skillful driver, the pair had made good their escape. Stanley and the boys gave up the hunt at the city's edge, where three highways broke off from one. He was hopeful that his APB would give him some quick results---otherwise the trail could get cold quick. With their recent take, they could go into hiding for years. He hit himself lightly on his chest with his fist. The heartburn was back.
He dialed the Englehard North Carolina Sheriff's office, and waited through an entire selection of on-hold Humperdinck music before the dispatcher broke in with her drawled greeting.
"Anglehart Sherf, this here's Coggins."
He explained his call, and alerted them that he was taking command of the situation, at least temporarily. The Englehard deputies were more than glad to give Munson the lead. They had other pressing tasks at hand---like what to do with a seven-foot alligator that had moved into the pond at City Park. Then there was their blockbuster task of how to remove a set of defective handcuffs from a prisoner that turned out to be innocent of shoplifting a pouch of Levi Garrett from Jiffy Market # 3.
As he got the details for the officers at Englehard, the puzzle parts easily arranged themselves in perfect order, and the picture was nearly complete. There were only two missing pieces.
"We discovered the car in the silt off the Fairfield Bridge. Troopers estimated it was traveling eighty or ninety, and it met little resistance at the old wooden guardrail. They figured it just spun over the thing like a skipping rock and landed in the lake with the T-tops off. The roof panels must have popped like champagne corks when it impacted. We figure it sank immediately."
"Dispatcher said only one passenger---a man," said Stanley.
"Yeah. Male, forty-two. Price Cooper is what comes up on DMV. It's his car, his name, and his driver's license. No priors, no wants and warrants. Y'all interested in this guy?"
"I need to see the car and contents," said a sweating Stanley, as the oscillating fan had stopped its wave---precisely when facing the wall.
They walked out of the office and into the confines of the chain link fence that was looped with razor wire. Behind Oney's Collision and Transmissions Wrecker was the red Trans Am, looking a bit like Detroit royalty amidst the other nondescript vehicles and the ski-boat doing time in the lot. But it had the unmistakable air of death that comes from the oddly-sweet smell of broken auto glass and the muck from below the surface of the lake. They opened the water-filled trunk. Floating about were men's and women's clothes, three bobbing bottles of J.T.S. Brown, and a leather case that was spotted with the gray of water stain and drying green moss. Inside, was a Burroughs Imprinter.
"Indeed, this is my long lost boy." Said Munson. "There should've been a female companion---and a helluva pile of cash somewhere---anything else in the car?"
"Nah, the car was empty except for the guy. Remember though, the T-tops were gone. Something or someone could've sure as hell popped outta there into deeper water. Guess this means it's worth dragging the lake?"
"Yeah," said Stanley, "worth it a lot. Do it now and call me." He handed them his card and strode away quietly---surrounded by his own world of questions, and popping his thumbnail against the edge of his false uppers.
"Be right with." His mouth hung on the last word---a frozen, gaping stare.
"Jeezus. Reba Nell. Godamitey---its you. My God---you've lost thirty pounds or something." He was scrubbing his hands across his stained apron, as if somehow unworthy to the herald of her return.
"I want to come home. I want to pick up where we left off. I don't want to explain anything. It's like I have been living in another body. I can't begin to understand any of it myself." The urgency of her words sliced their way through the grill-smoked air as if just released from captivity.
Tinker Bell's only customer slid sideways past her like a fiddler crab, looking her up and down as he made his way out of a place where he no longer belonged. He tipped his soiled Caterpillar cap in some kind of undeserved salute.
Carl moved from behind the counter and twisted himself onto the first barstool, which squealed out its longing for machine oil. He stared at her with shock and trepidation that is the stuff of ghost stories.
She sat the heavy legal briefcase on the skinned linoleum floor. "You aren't going to make a tired lady beg, are you?"
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