Chapter Three
Thunder in the Soul

Miriam had been nagged throughout the afternoon and late into the night by words and phrases describing the heavy thunderstorms that began just after the incident with Vidalia-Kitty, and by her imaginings of Franklin Curtis' future, too. As a haphazard writer, she knew what lay in store for her and had finally begun to scribble words on paper around a dinner that consisted of carrot cake and milk. She'd been struck over the course of the last year with the inability to control some visualizations that she had regarding one subject or another. And, too, she was beginning to understand that these thoughts would usually dissipate only after she wrote them down. It also seemed true that more often than not, she'd write something down at some point without realizing her actions at all, only to find scribbling later like a buried treasure among the scraps of paper on her table. She attempted to receive these occurrences as a gift from a higher power rather than an inconvenience, so after a time she'd stopped resisting the urges to write and tried to let it become a natural process in her life. By the time four a.m. rolled around she looked like a scarecrow, but she had in hand what wound up to be her latest work of art. For hours, she'd scribbled, written and paced, and finally gathered every scrap to sit in front of her computer, all in an attempt to work out what she now thought an audience was ready to hear. For that deed, Tahloolah was nominated. However, Loo wasn't aware whether she was ready or not when she was abruptly removed from a sofa cushion, arranged just so on the coffee table, and then instructed to sit and be quiet. And being an audience of one was exactly what Loolah would do as she bathed the sleep from her eyes. After she cleared her throat, Miriam began "Thunder in the Soul. Loo, pay attention." Tahloolah started her participation by grooming her head and ears. Miriam cleared her voice again and began "Tahloolah! Pay attention, please." Miriam didn't look toward the cat again fearing another cold-shoulder response, but instead began reciting from the crumpled page before her.

thunder in the soul

how strongly the wind of independence blows
calm stillness swiftly yields to chaos
scattering ancient dust into the sky
it howls and moans over still waters
where unlikely lovers drown

lightening angrily tortures the earth
searing the fertile ground beneath it
illuminating freedom in distant horizons
casting shadows of doubt with its rage
yet burning human essence forever

thunder in the soul rumbles against itself
quaking silence and serenity from the heart
a host of dark clouds assemble within
forecasting certain storms to be reckoned
lest it burden the spirit forever

the rain of knowledge washes clean upon the earth
settling dust with its ambition and strength
soothing the fires of furious strikes against the breast
quieting the pandemonium in the soul
to purify the heart with cool waters

daylight explodes against darkened skies
diminishing torment from stormy clouds
bursting with energy to nurture faith and hope
rays of understanding and growth shine through
a new dawn breaks free

Miriam didn't know if it was any good or not and Loolah hadn't said a word about it one way or the other before she passed out sleepily. Yet Miriam knew that the words had come from deep inside her, and felt most valuable somehow. She got a serious urge to write something about once a month and thought perhaps one day, she might submit a collection of poetry to the powers that be and let them be the judge of her talent, after all, each time she'd tested her work on Loolah she'd received no bad reviews. So Miriam tucked her work away neatly, as usual, and headed for bed to tuck her own self away. Completely exhausted from her late night's work she could afford to sleep the day away, she thought, after she double checked her lists and found nothing that couldn't wait until another day. As she drifted to sleep, she heard the steady fall of rain and the words of her poem swirling in her head. She made her nest as Loolah joined her and then fell deeply asleep, not to rise again until the folks of Cool Lake were finishing the next day's evening meal. And that was Miriam's goal, too, she had to eat. She'd awakened as empty as she'd ever remembered being in her entire life, and her stomach's growling defined the word famished like never before. She needed a shower, but she thought if she didn't eat soon, she'd fall out with only Tahloolah to revive her, so she dressed and headed for Maddy's place where she knew the food would be hot and the service fast. She hoped that Maddy would still be there at that hour of the evening so they could share details of the Franklin J. Curtis III incident, and so she could ask Maddy about the new girl in town, Esther. As she pulled out on Lake Circle, the Mustang passed her in a flurry. To Miriam's defeat, she still hadn't managed to catch a glimpse of the driver because she was too busy trying keep her car on the narrow road. The car only slowed down enough to turn West toward town on the highway, completely disregarding the stop sign. A wee bit pissed, Miriam thought she'd ask Maddy who in the hell the mysterious maniac driver might be, too, if she got the chance to talk to her.

Miriam smelled heaven when she walked through the door. They were already moving the tables around in the back for a little dancing, so she claimed one of the empty booths up front. Gladys, Maddy's sister, came up to the table with a menu and a glass of iced water, and with a slow, meticulous drawl found only in deep East Texas, she attempted to ask Miriam how she'd been. Miriam cut her off. "Gladys, could we chit chat later? I'm starving."

"Well, we sure can, Honey." Gladys' voice seemed kind and understanding. With a practiced routine, she took a pencil from behind her ear and licked the tip as she pulled an order pad from her apron. "You want the blue plate special? It's meat loaf."

"Yes, two helpings of that would be just fine." Miriam didn't think twice before asking, "do you have mashed potatoes and green beans?"

"Sure do." Gladys never looked up from her pad. "You want cornbread or dinner rolls?"

"Both would be just fine." Miriam continued without hesitation "and some apple pie if you have it, two slices with cheese melted on top."

"We've got that, too." Gladys stopped writing on her pad, and asked "Honey, when was the last time you ate a meal?"

Miriam paid no attention to the question and continued. "Also, can I have a glass of tea with my dinner, and then a glass of milk for the pie?"

"No problem." Gladys excused herself by saying she'd be back with the rolls and tea. Miriam quickly spoke up and asked her to go ahead and bring the pie, too. "Honey, you're gonna have to slow down or you'll eat us out of hearth and home."

As her eyes followed the forced swing of Gladys' hips, Miriam noticed Maddy's cigarette case was laying on the bar. Asking Gladys when she returned with the beginnings of Miriam's meal if Maddy was still there, Gladys answered "she's doing the books in the back, but I'll get her for you if you want me to."

"No, don't bother her, Gladys ol'Girl." Miriam was helping Gladys take the food off the tray to speed up the process. "Is she going to be around here tonight?"

Gladys gleefully answered. "Yep. She's covering my shift tonight 'cause I gotta date." When she said date, she pushed her hair up in the back, twisted her hips, and struck a pose for Miriam.

"Lucky you." Miriam took only a glancing notice of the demonstration, and then busied herself with her silverware and napkin. "Well, then, there'll be time enough to talk with her when I'm finished eating," Miriam concluded, just before she shoved a big bite of pie into her mouth.

"When do ya reckon that'll be, Miriam, tomorrow sometime?" Gladys chuckled. "You've ordered enough to feed an army. Hey, aren't you gonna eat your dinner first?"

The cook yelled out "order up," and Gladys said that she'd get the rest of Miriam's food and be right back. While Gladys was gone, Miriam took the liberty of finishing off the homemade pie and drinking the milk, and was watching the folks who were dancing in the back calmly when Gladys returned.

When Gladys arrived, she placed her tray across the isle on the counter rather than the table, and then with both hands on her hips, pulled her short skirt up and bent over, she dramatically looked underneath to Miriam's legs. Miriam looked under the table, too, though she didn't know what she was looking for. When Gladys stood up, she prematurely popped the bubble she was blowing with her gum. "Girl, I could of sworn I brought you two pieces of pie and a large glass of milk, but it's gone, vanished, poof. You got a dog under there or a hollow leg?" She retrieved the tray and looked under the table again for good measure. Then after she sat Miriam's plate down, she said "surely you couldn't have eat all that so fast." She shook her head as she gathered the empty pie plates and mumbled something that Miriam didn't understand as she walked away. Miriam watched her just a second more, and then dove in.

As usual, the food was hot and delicious. Miriam began to slow and enjoy the flavor of her meal after the pie kicked in. There was lots of atmosphere in the back near the jukebox, but she didn't pay much attention to it as she ate. She was lost instead with thoughts about the food and the Hubert girls, Madeleine Gail and Gladys Ann. She wondered how the two of them could've been raised by the same parents and then wind up to be such opposite human beings - Gladys the hell raiser of the two, and Maddy meek and mild. They were only a year apart in age, but Gladys looked rode hard and put up wet when she wore her neon blue eye shadow and mini skirts. Maddy was the older of the two girls, but thanks to a much more civilized lifestyle, she easily looked ten years younger than Gladys. Miriam thought of what Gladys said about having a date, and then thought of what her five hungry mouths might say to that. Gladys had never been married, but took home "fathers" for her children like most folks took home a loaf of bread. Maddy had confided in Miriam once that when the note was paid on the Starfish Inn, she fully intended to take Gladys to court to get custody of her children. But for now, Maddy chose to put up with Gladys' comings and goings so that the children would have some kind of security. At the time, Miriam asked Maddy why she didn't go ahead and get the kids, to which Maddy explained that she was unable to pay someone to run the restaurant for her, pay the bank note, and raise five kids. So, at least for now, they remained at the Hubert homestead, which had been given to Gladys for the children's benefit after their mother and father died.

Miriam reflected on her own possibilities if she'd had more siblings, but as it was, she had only a brother who was somewhere in California the last she'd heard. At Miriam's birth, he'd been out of the house for several years, stationed somewhere overseas with the Army. The fact was that he never came back home or recognized her as a part of his family. She knew Maddy and Gladys weren't close either, and knew it was only pretense on Maddy's part so that she could keep a watchful eye on the kids. And Maddy was loyal to Gladys' children. She made sure they had food to eat and a roof over their heads, whether she had one or not. And after Maddy's husband died, a man she'd never spoken of, she'd become much closer to the kids than ever. Maddy often made the comment that she was on her way to get the kids, even after she'd finished her hard day's work at the diner. Miriam wondered where they would be tonight, with Gladys out for a good time and Maddy stuck at work.

Then just as Miriam put the last bite of cornbread into her mouth, she saw Maddy coming through the kitchen, gliding through the swinging doors with ease and beaming when she saw Miriam. Maddy poured two cups of coffee, got two pieces of pie, her cigarette case, and a fork, and then headed around the counter toward Miriam's booth. Miriam was amazed that she could carry it all, but knew Maddy had been in the business for a long time. Miriam helped her sit the coffee and pie down, and then Maddy crawled in on Miriam's side of the booth for a big hug. Miriam loved Maddy's hugs because Maddy was always soft and warm and smelled of roses. "Thank you!" Miriam said with complete honesty and exaltation just before Maddy scooted out and went around to the other side. "Damn, Maddy, you look as good as ever."

"Aw, Kid, you're just saying that 'cause I brought you pie." Maddy called Miriam 'Kid' no matter what. Miriam had told her that she was only three years younger than she was, but she always said it anyway. Miriam had come to accept it as a term of endearment from Maddy, and had never heard her call anyone else by that name.

Gladys showed up just then, and said "there's another two pieces of pie. Girl do you have a slop bucket under the table?" Maddy and Miriam looked at each other without saying a word and cracked up. Gladys continued, perturbed "Well! I don't see nothin' funny out of either one of you," then she went around the bar toward the kitchen in a huff.

After Gladys was out of sight, Maddy quizzed. "What in the world was all that about?" When Miriam told her the story, they cracked up again.

Gladys noticed them from the kitchen laughing again, and called back. "Well! There is nothing funny about her eaten' all that pie. If she didn't starve herself half to death, she wouldn't have to order all that in the first place. And you deliberately feedin' her more of it is not funny, Maddy Gail."

Miriam and Maddy continued to laugh at Gladys, and then just for spite, they began eating their pie and drinking their coffee in a mocking manner. "Well, now. Tell me where you've been. Are you seeing anybody yet?"

This was a standard question from Maddy. A woman who thought everyone not only deserved to be, but should be, in love. Everyone but herself, that was, because as Maddy always said, she was "way too busy for all of that nonsense." "Naw, I've just been taking care of myself and keeping everything on the up and up." Miriam played devil's advocate, asking "what about you, Maddy? Have you found your prince charming since I saw you last?"

"Oh, girl, I'm too busy to look for him right now." Her answer was just as Miriam expected. Maddy continued, "but one of these days when God's ready, I'll have enough time to look for Mr. Right."

Miriam had one more dig up her sleeve. "Now, Maddy, what you really need is a good woman." Miriam never looked up from her pie when she made the off handed remark because she knew that she would've laughed out loud.

"Right, Kid. When cows sprout wings from their ugly butts to fly the friendly skies. A woman would have to have lots of hair on her chest, and something more than I've got between her legs to impress me." Maddy paused, then added "and I don't mean anything mechanical either." Miriam cracked, Maddy went on. "I had girls-a-plenty when I was in college and, no offense to you, Kid, but I learned real quick that they were more trouble than they were worth."

"Okay, Maddy. I was just checking to see if a miracle had happened for me since I saw you last." Miriam continued, "If there's ever..."

Then Maddy finished "...anything you can do, I know" And after a moment of shared silence between them, Maddy added with a sweet stormy smile "and Kid, I know that there is plenty you could do, but I'll just have to let you know."

Acting put-out, yet returning her smile in like, Miriam cursed. "Damn, Maddy, I'm out of luck again. I just know one of these days..."

"...your luck is going to change," Maddy finished. Both laughed in harmony, which caught Gladys' attention. Maddy said, "Uh oh. Here comes trouble at twelve o'clock." Miriam looked around in time to see Gladys edging around the counter from her duties in the back.

Miriam got out "oops" but nothing more when Gladys arrived at the table swinging a half-empty coffee pot. "Did you guys signal for me to warm your coffee?"

Maddy replied slowly and softly. "No, Gladys, we didn't. But since you're already here, you might as well go ahead and refill our cups so you won't have to come back. And I know I've mentioned before that you shouldn't blow bubbles out of your mouth around the customers, Honey. People just don't like that sort of thing."

As Gladys poured the coffee, she completely ignored what Maddy had said and bragged again to Miriam that she had a date. "Yeah. You told me earlier, Gladys. Who's the lucky fellow?"

"Oh, you wouldn't know him; he's not from around here. He calls Sabine Springs his home and he commutes over here everyday to work." Some commute, Miriam thought to herself, knowing the little spot in the road named Sabine Springs just before the college overpass only twenty minutes away, because she'd passed through there on one of her many trips East to see her doctor in Shreveport.

Maddy wiped her mouth delicately at each corner, and interjected a casual wile. "Oh, I don't know. Go on, Gladys. Miriam would know him. Tell her what his name is."

With patience, Gladys finished blowing a huge bubble from a piece of chewing gum, which continuously worked between her teeth. Miriam looked at Maddy a little puzzled and Maddy shook her head "no" just once and raised her eyebrows. When Maddy glanced upward again, she whispered a shout to her ill-mannered sister. "Gladys!"

"POP!" went the bubble gum. Miriam jumped and looked toward Gladys just as she professed the name of her secret date with glass-like smoothness. "Franklin J. Curtis, the Third."

Miriam thought her heart pounded out of her chest as she looked back at Maddy for help, but found that she sat with a remarkable stone-faced appearance. When Maddy finally made eye contact with Miriam, Maddy glanced down and started to stir her coffee nonchalantly. Miriam sat frozen until Gladys leaned on the table for attention. "Do you know him?"

Miriam didn't know what to do. She tried to steady herself with the table, then looked at Gladys helplessly. She could only gesture "no." Gladys popped another bubble, and said to Maddy in a matter-of-fact fashion "see, Smarty Pants. I told you she wouldn't know him." Then Gladys merrily went on her way toward the kitchen, swinging the coffee pot and leaving the two of them in their silence.

Miriam started. "Oh, my God. Have you heard..."

Maddy nodded. "Yes, it just kills my soul."

Miriam started again, "Gladys doesn't know?"

"She knows every ounce of it." Maddy seemed as frozen as Miriam felt.

"What about..." Miriam tried to start again.

"I don't know." Maddy interrupted Miriam solemnly without knowing fully what the question might be. "The two of them have been seeing each other on and off for years. And I'd swear her youngest boy, Teddy, is his. Looks just like him."

Miriam found herself in shock, and began slowly and without direction. "Maddy. Honey..." But her words trailed off since she really knew nothing else to say.

"I know, Kid. I feel the same way." Maddy continued, "I have reminded her more than once about the questionable character of some of these strange men that she has dealings with, but nothing seems to do any good." Then leaning into Miriam's table space, she accentuated her words carefully. "And she thinks she's pregnant again." Maddy moved her coffee cup and went on. "You know, she has five of the most beautiful children I have ever seen, and I wouldn't take away one of them. But, you know...after awhile...enough is enough."

"Isn't she on some kind of birth control?" Miriam had to ask, even though she knew it was none of her business.

"Gladys says, 'only people who don't love children need birth control.' And on top of that, if he's out at the truck stop and the roadside park doing who knows what with who knows who, what kind of diseases could he be carrying around?" Maddy looked at Miriam wearily, and added solemnly "I can't get her to listen to reason."

They both fell silent again. Miriam didn't know what to say to comfort her friend, so she said nothing at all. Momentarily, Maddy picked it up "you know, the other day when I listened to Watson telling this story about some poor schlep with his dick caught in a hole at the 69, I laughed my ass off. I couldn't believe how some ignorant little guy actually had the nerve to get caught doing what he did, and right here in our sleepy little town." Maddy vented, "I said to myself, this guy must've been traveling through, like one of those truckers or a tourist or somebody, but definitely not a local boy."

Miriam was still in a daze when she agreed. "Right. Right. I know what you're saying. The roadside park, too?" Maddy's earlier words had stunned her.

"But hell, no. Watson left the guy's name out of his story until the very end. It came like a death knell. All of a sudden, it wasn't funny to me no-more-no-more," Maddy sang her last words in nursery rhyme fashion. "Not funny at all. And then it's got to be one of our own." Miriam could tell Maddy was beginning to be a little pissed and by the time Maddy was finished, she was screaming, "and to top it all off, HE'S GOTTA BE FUCKIN' MY SISTER!"

More than a few heads had turned, Miriam noticed, when she glanced toward the back. "Whoa there, Maddy! You've got to catch hold of yourself." Miriam took Maddy's hand, and reminded her "you've got a business to run here and you have to remain professional."

Tears streamed down Maddy's face, an act which always made Miriam feel uncomfortable in public. Miriam thought she needed to do something, but she wasn't sure what. She knew Maddy didn't need to scream or cry in front of her customers, so she moved around the booth to where Maddy sat and put their hands together. Miriam offered for them to go to the ladies room, Maddy said "no." Then she suggested the office, another "no." And then she got butch, insisting that they go outside for a breather. "We'll go stand under the awning and smoke a peaceful cigarette. Please, Maddy, we need to do that."

Miriam stood and let Maddy out of the booth. She then grabbed Maddy's cigarette case and her own smokes from the table as she turned to go out. Gladys was busy filling pitchers of beer in the back and called out to Miriam about the check. She thought quickly, then told her that they would both be back in just a second for another piece of pie. Gladys shook her head and started wiping down the counter. Miriam supposed she'd clumsily spilled some beer while eyeing the two of them up, something else that would have upset Maddy if she'd noticed. Miriam knew that Maddy needed to get a grip and fast since Gladys was about to leave for the night. Miriam caught up with Maddy, and quickly lit a cigarette for her and then one for herself. They both took deep drags and comically, both began to speak at the same time. Miriam was going to change the subject if Maddy hadn't started to speak, but since she did, she insisted that Maddy continue so that she perhaps she could get it all out. "In a way, isn't it hilarious what happened to Franklin?" Maddy asked in a low tone. "I mean, if I wasn't involved, I would just have to laugh my ass off."

"Don't say 'ass' to Laverne. To her, those are serious words," Miriam stated matter-of-factly. "She's the one that told the Franklin story to me, and when I said the word 'ass,' Laverne stopped in mid stream and wanted to change boats. If you know what I mean."

"Good ol'Laverne, she's got a heart of gold and a platinum pussy to boot." Maddy began to laugh. Miriam took this as a very good sign.

"She and I did laugh, and laughed hard, at poor Franklin's plight." To keep it light, Miriam went on with more information about Laverne hoping it would help Maddy's frame of mind. "Have you ever tried her Polk Sallet and Honeysuckle dish?"

"Good gravy, no, I've never tried it. And the next verse is that I am not ever going to try it. Just the name makes me want to blow cookies." Maddy finished with "yuck! Hey, did Laverne tell you the whole story?"

"Yep. Right up to the fifteen hundred dollar payoff," Miriam replied with confidence.

"So she didn't tell you what happened to Franklin after he went back to work?" Maddy asked teasingly.

"No, Laverne fell silent when she spoke about what might happen to Franklin where the Smithey boys were concerned. I want to know more if you have more to tell."

Maddy started to divulge what else she knew, when headlights struck them. "Oh, dear Jesus. Here he comes."

"Here who comes?" Miriam quizzed.

"Franklin Curtis. He's here to pick up Gladys. Watch this," Maddy said defiantly.

"Maddy, you're not going to do something stupid are you? I don't want to be part of any trouble." Miriam spoke fast and plain. She, in fact, avoided trouble at all costs since her accident because her nerves just weren't strong enough to take it.

"Relax, Kid. I just want to make him squirm a little, that's all. I promise." Miriam waited for Franklin to approach by watching every move that Maddy made. Franklin was darting toward them pretty fast with his head tucked under his suit coat, and then Maddy spoke. "Hey, Franklin." When he peered from underneath his jacket, Maddy asked "did Hirum Smithey find you?" Franklin slammed on the brakes and skidded his dress shoes in the wet gravel, losing his footing and almost falling. "He's been out here twice tonight looking for you."

Miriam thought that Franklin Curtis went as white as a sheet before turning on his heels and getting back to his car. When he grabbed his door handle, he yelled "tell Gladys something came up and I'll catch her later." He got inside his car and sped away.

Maddy seemed pleased with herself. She turned to Miriam, and grinned. "That's that. I don't know why I didn't think of that before. Let's go in. I'll buy you a cold beer."

Back inside, Miriam and Maddy found their booth had been cleared away, leaving two cups of cold coffee, two half-eaten slices of apple pie, and an ashtray with Miriam's check partially hidden underneath. "Boy, is she ever eager to end her shift or else she's trying to please the boss one, 'cause she's never gotten around to bussing a table this fast, not even in noonday traffic." Maddy was surveying the place to locate Gladys without any luck, then spotted her coming out of the women's restroom. "Wonder if she ran across any winkie-filled holes in there?" They both laughed for a moment, then Maddy said "when the powder puff comes around, let me do the talking."

That was enough said for Miriam, who saw that Gladys was on her way, because she wanted to play no part in a sibling squabble. And she certainly wanted nothing to do with Franklin J. Curtis, III. Nor had she anything to say - one way or the other - regarding what Maddy had said to him outside. Gladys was in the process of popping another bubble as she said "move over" to Miriam with a wave of her heavily perfumed hand. Miriam scooted a good distance thinking that Gladys would just sit politely on the edge of the seat, but after the fall, Miriam had to not only scoot over again but scoot out from under Gladys' butt as well. That was another way that Maddy and Gladys were different, Miriam thought. Maddy was slight of build and well proportioned, and she dressed conservatively and with class. Gladys, on the other hand, fought a losing battle with the bulge, and overcompensated by purchasing everything she wore one size too small, including the midi skirts that became mini-skirts when she put them on in order to accentuate her voluptuous figure. "Howdy, girls. Where have you two been?" Gladys said the words in a way that implied that they'd been up to something devious.

Maddy completely ignored Gladys' remark and shot back. "So," Maddy paused, "what time was Mr. Curtis supposed to pick you up?" Miriam took a sip of her cold coffee and watched the faces of the two sisters with great interest. Maddy went on, "seems to me like he might be running a little late."

"Naw, he's just an important man at the funeral home, that's all," Gladys declared with pride as she pushed up her hair and looked away. "There could've been a death pop up or some embalming to do or something." She looked at Miriam and shook her head "yes" until Miriam caught herself mocking the behavior momentarily as if hypnotized until Gladys looked away quickly toward Maddy and blew a defiant bubble. Gladys then looked directly at Miriam again, and bragged, "yep. He wears a beeper twenty-four seven just in case they need to reach him for emergencies and all."

Miriam lost control a bit, but recovered quickly by looking away and disguising her laughter by clearing her throat while grabbing for her cigarettes. She looked at Maddy desperately and got a nod of approval, and an oddly sinister grin. Gladys was oblivious to the whole matter, and continued her chatter. "He'll be coming from the funeral parlour tonight, 'cause they needed an extra hand this afternoon." Miriam lost it again, but covered it this time with a hearty cough. Gladys continued. "Girl, I hope you ain't catchin' a cold or nothing by not eating and all. Whoever "they" is, says that not puttin' something in your mouth three times a day suppresses the immune system." Miriam was on the edge of losing it again and began to fiddle with the ashtray.

Maddy cleared her throat, and then said to Gladys with a bit of sarcasm "yeah. Sister, he's something to be real proud of."

"Yeah, ain't he though. We make a fine couple, don't we?" Gladys finished by popping a bubble and sucking it back in her mouth, adding "I think I'll go call to see if he's left." She promptly got up and bounced away, scooting a sugar shaker down the counter top noisily as she walked along.

Miriam spoke, "Maddy, I'm sorry. I just can't contain myself much longer. No offense, but sometimes her country bumpkin attitude really gets to me. I've been on the verge of busting out laughing." Miriam had been dead serious when she uttered those words and when she made eye contact with Maddy they both cracked up. "Maddy, we sound like two old cackling hens." As they started to calm down Miriam asked Maddy what she was up to with Gladys, and Maddy confessed she didn't have a clue.

Gladys slammed the phone down by the register and cried out. "Well, if that don't take the cake."

Maddy waited to see if she was on her way back, and told her to bring a couple of beers with her when she came. Gladys replied, "I'll bring three."

"You know," Maddy began, "if she wasn't my sister she'd be out on a limb and I'd be a chain saw. Oh, did you notice my tree fell out front?"

"Yes. I passed by the other day when they were dragging it off." Miriam added "that was Franklin, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, they drug it down by the creek until I can have it cut up when the rain stops. Who would've thought that anybody would do such a thing? You know," Maddy continued, "I bought a round of drinks in his honour when he and Cowboy Bill finished draggin' that tree away. We all stood in here like idiots and cheered and clapped and watched Franklin Curtis become 'hero for a day,' like all those men up there holding their prize catches." Maddy nodded upward, where above the counter loomed snapshots of fishermen clutching nice sized fish caught from Cool Lake.

"And you feel like you were duped?" Miriam asked sympathetically.

"Yes, and damned if I know how else to feel." Maddy said "except sick about what's going on with him and my sister."

Miriam weighed her thoughts and began slowly, "Maddy, I don't know if this will be any consolation, and it's certainly not my place to defend him, but Franklin Curtis is just a man. He's as human as you or me, and he's not immune to mistakes. And your sister's human, too." Miriam paused briefly to try a different approach. "Sometimes we may not like or understand why someone would do the things they do. Like, who knows what Gladys sees in Franklin, especially since he's been caught in a potentially dangerous situation. But, hey! If they looked at us, they might not understand us either."

Gladys arrived from the back with three glasses of beer clenched between her fingers. She noticed the serious atmosphere at the table, and muted a bubble that she was just about to pop to save herself from Maddy's scorn. Seriousness was something that never rested on Gladys' shoulders. Perhaps that was a good thing, Miriam thought, it always gave a person the opportunity to walk away when things got tough. "Geez. Did somebody die while I was gone? You two look like you're waiting on the Saints." Miriam laid out napkins and helped Gladys distribute the beer. Maddy sat silent and still.

Miriam said softly "thanks for bringing out the beer, Gladys." And all three of them fell silent as Gladys squeezed in again across from Maddy.

Gladys took the gum out of her mouth and sucked down almost all of her beer at one go, coming up for air with a foam mustache, which made Miriam suppress nervous laughter. "Ah! Damn, that's good beer," Gladys decreed and then slurped the mustache off of her top lip before replacing the gum. Turning to Maddy, she asked "ain't ya thirsty, Sister M? You did want beer didn't you?"

Maddy smiled politely and took a small sip. Miriam suspected that she'd decided to do the right thing and tell her sister the truth, the whole truth, about everything. Then she turned to Gladys and said, "Gladys, I don't want you to go out with Franklin tonight..."

Miriam could immediately tell that Gladys had taken Maddy's statement very personally. She stopped Maddy where she was in mid-sentence and shot back at her sister quickly. "Why? Girl, you'd just like for me to dig a hole and crawl right in it." Miriam and Maddy had both picked up on Gladys' accentuation of the word 'hole,' and made immediate eye contact. "They said he was too busy to come to the phone, and that he might be busy all night. I just wish he'd drop whatever he's doin' and come on, just take me away from this hole in the wall." Miriam and Maddy both raised their eyebrows simultaneously. "I just can't imagine what's holdin' him up." Miriam and Maddy both watched in shock as Gladys struggled to exit the booth, moving the table from the wall about six inches, and spilling beer from teetering glasses. "I sure hope he isn't stalled out somewhere." Miriam and Maddy both grinned mischievously at one another as Gladys continued her banter. "If he doesn't show up tonight and leaves me here with you, it's gonna suck - big time." Miriam squirmed uncomfortably in her seat, and noticed Maddy had raised her hand to cover her mouth. Gladys' departing words were "if anybody wants me, I'll be in the restroom." That was the straw that broke the camel's back. She'd no more than turned around when Miriam and Maddy broke into hearty laughter, beating the table and stomping their feet to relieve tension. Red faced, Gladys turned back, and screamed "you two act like a couple of fifteen-year-olds. What's up?" More hilarity came, Miriam and Maddy were beside themselves; both involved in uncontrollable laughter.

The laughter seemed to go on forever but neither of them could stop. The crowd in the back took notice of the commotion and stopped dancing to "Crazy" which continued to play on the jukebox. Then it got worse instead of better. Tears began to stream down their cheeks, which caused them to point and laugh at each other's faces. Brother D, the cook, came out from the kitchen and sized them up cautiously, and this made them laugh. They laughed louder when Brother D approached the booth and silently plucked the beer from their table, and scurried away with the glasses. Still more chuckles as they watched Gladys stumble on a teacart and push it out of her way with a swing of her hip. Brother D went behind the counter and asked Maddy did she want him to clean their table, Maddy nodded in approval but couldn't manage a single word. Finally, after minutes passed like hours, both of them gave a calming sigh in unison. "Ohhhhhh."

Brother D was silent as he cleared the booth and wiped it down, then with his heavy southern accent, he asked "Miss Madaline, is ya'lls alright?" Maddy nodded her head that signaled the outbreak was over. "There anythang else I can do now that ya'lls alright? Should I be goin' ta checks on Miss Gladys? Ya'll wonna 'nother beer now, Miss Madaline?"

Maddy began to shake her head "no" to his next question, then changed her nod to "yes" somewhere around the 'Miss Gladys' part. Obviously, Brother D understood every bit of it, because he departed with his tub and then returned with two freshly frosted glasses and a pitcher of cold beer. Miriam and Maddy had been silent before his return, busy with readjusting the table and wiping their eyes from the laughter. Maddy flashed a sleek, laser lighter and returned it to her jeweled case just as he placed the refreshments on the table. Miriam thought that both the lighter and the case were a reflection of Maddy's refined tastes. "Thanks Brother D, you're a lifesaver." As she spoke to Brother D, she exhaled a huge puff of smoke, and then requested "after you check on Gladys, go take a break and have yourself a beer. I'll handle the kitchen if anyone comes in." He spoke not a word to her, turned and was on his way. Maddy spoke to Miriam, "Woo, Kid. That was the best laugh that I've had in a long, long while. Thank you for that, and for putting up with my sister and me. I apologize. I know you didn't come here tonight looking to get involved in any of this mess."

"No, it's okay, Maddy." She was absorbed in pouring the beer into long, slender glasses. Then Miriam lit her own cigarette with her treasured Zippo, and drew a long drag of smoke before saying "I'm just awful sorry that I laughed at Gladys like that. That is definitely not part of my character, and I apologize to you." Miriam tasted her beer. It was just the way she liked it, fresh from the tap with bits of ice in the foam. "Mmm. Maddy you serve good beer," she said as she retrieved a napkin from the holder to wipe the foam from her mouth. "Hey, Maddy?" She'd caught Maddy in the middle of another sip of the cold refreshment, so she didn't wait for a reply. "You were going to confess to Gladys before all this started, weren't you?"

"Yep. She blew that with that tirade of hers just like she's done a dozen times before. Listen, Kid, I've honestly tried many times through the years to keep her best interest at heart. I mean, some things that affect her naturally have an effect on me whether I like it or not, so I do it for my own benefit as well. But many is the time that I've thought of just her alone, or her and those kids, without thinking of myself at all. I don't do things to hurt her, when you know me better, you'll know that's true."

"I already know you, Maddy. I think you scared Franklin tonight probably for yourself a little, yes. But, down deep, I think you did it mostly to protect Gladys. Hey, if I had a sister, and somebody like him was messing with her, you can bet your boots I'd do everything I could to protect her." Miriam noticed Maddy was shaking her head in agreement. Miriam felt compelled to say one other thing, "I have to confess one thing to you though, if I had a sister like Gladys, who wasn't mindful of herself or her children's well being, I'd come to a point and then I'd stop trying." Miriam quickly threw in "but I don't have the patience of Job like you do, Maddy."

"That's why I didn't say anything else to her, it would have only gotten worse. I can just say so much sometimes before she gets mad and storms off like she just did." Maddy spoke as if defeated. Then with newfound energy, she added "but if she ever stops sulking or doing Godknows what in the bathroom, I'll put an end to this charade. At least for tonight."

"When she comes back, Maddy, I'm going to go. I think you two need to talk without me, and I've been gone from home long enough." Miriam began to think quickly of something that would press her to get home, just in case Maddy asked her to stay. She also picked up the check, and began to dig into her pocket for the cash to pay with.

When Maddy noticed what she was doing she attempted to take the check and told Miriam not to worry. "It's on me this time, Kid. You shouldn't have to pay for cheap entertainment like this."

Miriam retrieved the tab and countered. "Nope. I'm not going to let you get it this time, but thanks anyway." Maddy was waving her off, but Miriam didn't quit. "No. Your offer is well intended and well taken, but not this time." Miriam had located her funds, and counted out the money for the tab, throwing in extra for Gladys' service. "Hey, Maddy? How much should I add for the beer?"

Maddy quickly replied. "Oh! Definitely, I'm buying the beer. Don't even try that, Kid. You've probably worn more than you've drank, with my sister, the hippo, rootin' out of the booth and all. I shouldn't have called her that, I didn't mean it." But then Maddy smiled wide, and finished "just send me your dry cleaning bill."

"I'm sorry that we didn't get to talk more, there were a couple of things I wanted to ask you." Miriam lamented, then said "and you were going to finish with the Franklin story, but there's always next time."

"Well, go ahead and ask me, Kid." Maddy leaned up in her seat to listen. "Go ahead, Kid."

Now that Miriam had the opportunity she thought she'd take only enough time for just one question. "Do you know anything about a new employee who works at the Some Like It Hot downtown? I saw her while I was in town the other day, her badge had the name 'Esther' engraved on it."

"Hmm," Maddy thought aloud. "A new employee named Esther. No, Kid, it doesn't ring any bells. Maybe she's a student that's come over from the college to work."

"Maybe, Maddy. But I don't think so. She's our age or there about. And although that doesn't mean she's not a college student, she just didn't strike me as the type."

"Well, let me ask around, Kid, and I'll see what I can come up with."

Miriam was exiting the booth, "Naw, that's okay, Maddy. She was just a new face in town and it got my curiosity up."

Maddy rose with her and they inched toward the door. "Must've been an awfully interesting face to catch your attention, Kid. Is she pretty?"

"Very pretty face, Maddy, just like yours." Miriam gave Maddy a big hug.

"Aw, thank you, Kid. I'm glad you think so. Hey, you be careful going home. I don't care if it is a short way, danger lurks everywhere." Maddy apologized again for the evening, then offered "you come back sometime soon and I'll buy your lunch, okay?" Maddy always made an offer to feed her, but Miriam's pride wouldn't let Maddy continue to absorb food costs unnecessarily. So, while she always thought it was a very nice gesture, she was careful not to take advantage of Maddy's hospitality. "Hey!" Maddy called to her from the door. "Come back Saturday night. We're having our annual fish fry. What ya say?"

"I'll try, Maddy. Goodnight." Miriam assured her that she'd come back soon, then darted to her car to avoid the rain, which had picked up substantially since the Franklin incident earlier. On the drive home, she wondered how it would go with Maddy and Gladys after she left. Miriam backed into the garage as usual and noticed that Vidalia bolted from a hiding place on the back shelves somewhere. Then smiling, she pressed the remote to close the door, knowing that she'd won the cat's favor.

Chapter Two
Chapter Four

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