Disclaimers: See Part 1
A Special Note to Our Readers: Hoosier Daddy is a work in progress. You will likely notice a few inconsistencies here and there as you make your way through the online version of the story. We have made some tweaks and subtle adjustments to the plot, most specifically to timelines. For this, we ask your indulgence, and promise that in the final, published version of the book, everything will make sense. If not, we reserve the right to blame our editor.
Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are ours.
Violence/Sex: No violence, but some quirky sexual encounters and lots of big trucks. This story does involve a consensual, loving and romantic relationship between two adult women. It's not graphic, but if sexual encounters in bathrooms or behind lemon shake-up stands offend you, you may want to consider another story selection -- or at least one that isn't set in Indiana.
We would love to know what you think, and can be reached at email@example.com , firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/maxine.redwood or http://www.facebook.com/ann.mcman or http://www.facebook.com/SalemWest.411 .
Copyright: Ann McMan and Salem West, April 2013. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any format without the prior express permission of the authors.
Things were nuts at work on Monday. There was word that some of the Ogata people were coming this week to meet with senior management, and the rumors were spreading like wildfire. Buzz was all over the line supervisors to get things cleaned-up and squared away—like any of us ever left things like that untended to. We didn't. The only “problems” we ever had came from him, and others of his ilk who thought they could slough off their responsibilities and ignore the serious safety violations that kept cropping up because they insisted on hiring and protecting guys like Earl Junior. Already, I'd had to move two skids of oil filters out of the way after Earl Junior decided to park them in front of the fire extinguishers next to the axel welding station.
I'd had enough of this bullshit. If management wouldn't do anything about Earl Junior, I'd just have to take it up with Pauline. So what if I got creamed corn for the rest of my life? Things needed to change before somebody got seriously hurt.
Buzz saw me heading for the cafeteria on my break, and rushed over to cut me off the pass.
“Just where in the hell do you think you're going?” He was out of breath. But that wasn't unusual. Even standing up from a chair winded him.
I held up my arm to show him Grammy's watch. “Lunch, Buzz. Heard of it?”
“Not on my time.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn't realize my break was classified as your time.”
“It is when the Japs are coming to town. Nobody gets a break today.”
Japs? Oh, yeah. Buzz was going to fare really well with the new owners.
“Buzz…everything in my area is in perfect order. So go annoy somebody else.”
I started to walk away from him but he grabbed hold of me.
“Let go of me, Buzz.” I jerked my arm free.
“Look, Fryman. Gettin' your axel greased by that union bitch don't give you any right to act all high and mighty in here. I'm still in charge.”
I bit back my first response—which was to tell him to fuck off. I knew Buzz well enough to know that sinking to his level would just escalate his rude behavior.
“I'm glad you mentioned axels,” I said. “Because your protégée left about two tons of stock parked in front of the extinguishers at the welding station.”
Buzz waved a hand dismissively. “So what? We have backups for that. They're called ‘redundancies.' Ever heard of those, Fryman?”
“The only thing redundant around here is you . You're worthless, Buzz.”
“We'll see how worthless I am when I write your ass up for insubordination.” Buzz was really getting pissed off at me. I could see that little vein in his forehead starting to pop out. It looked like a piece of angry clothesline.
“Fine.” I'd had enough of his empty threats. I was his best line supervisor, and he knew it. “Then I might as well take twice as long on my break. I mean…if you're writing me up, you can just add that to my list of offenses, too.” I walked away from him.
“I'm not finished with you yet, Fryman!” he called after me.
I waved a hand over my head. “Buzz-off, Buzz.”
He yelled something else, but by then, I was far enough away for the ambient noise of the machinery to drown out what he said.
Asshole. I pushed open the door that led to the company cafeteria. Luanne was in there, seated at one of the blue-topped Formica tables, wolfing down a plate of…something. She saw me and waved me over.
I looked down at her mostly empty plate. Tannish-yellow chunks of something unrecognizable were floating in a pool of thick-looking gravy.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes. “I blasted Pauline about Earl Junior parking his damn Pinto across three spaces in the lot this morning.” She lifted another spoonful of the gelatinous muck. “She didn't much care for it.”
“So I see.”
Luanne glanced up at the big wall clock. “It ain't like you to take a lunch break. What's going on?”
“Buzz is getting on my last nerve.” I pulled out a chair and sat down. “Now I'm not even hungry.”
“Well,” Luanne ran the crust of a slice of white bread around the edge of her plate. “I wish you could've gone outside and had a smoke for me, then. I don't know as I can make it another two hours ‘til my next break.”
“Why don't you invest in one of those nicotine patches?”
Luanne snorted. “Hell. I'd have to daisy chain about twenty of those damn things together just to cover enough real estate to do my cravings any good.”
“I don't think they work that way, Lu. It's more about a timed-release kind of thing.”
“The only damned ‘timed-release' I give two flips about is the one that's gonna spring my son early from Branchville.”
I nodded. Luanne's son was serving a ten-month stretch for nonpayment of child support. The penalty was so stiff because it was his third offense. Luanne and Jay maintained that Jay Jr. was right not to pay off his “scheming Jezebel” wife because her kids didn't even look like their son.
“Jay, Jr. doing okay?”
“He was the last time I seen him.” She shook her head. “He's just sick about missing Pork Day, what with Jailissa being such a contender and all.”
Luanne sighed. “Well. It don't pay no never mind to get all het up about things we can't control.” She looked at me. “Just like you and that union agitator.”
I blinked. “What's that supposed to mean?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, hell. Like you don't know that everybody in six counties is talkin' about you and that El DeBarge gettin' locked-up in the bathroom at Fast Mart yesterday.”
I sighed. “How did you hear about that?”
Luanne threw her head back and damn near bayed herself right off her seat. “You gotta be kiddin' me? You don't think that asshole Buzz Sheets burned rubber getting' back to Hoosier Daddy trailin' this tasty little tale—along with that gas nozzle?”
I rested my head in my hands. “Oh, god…”
“And that was after he told everybody at Buster Collins's funeral about it.”
“I told you to stay away from her, didn't I?”
“But you had to go and get yourself all hot and bothered.”
“And now you'll be lucky if you don't find your truck packed in cow shit every night when you leave this joint.”
“Judas Priest, Luanne!” I raised my voice, and two-dozen other heads bent over plates of creamed corn pivoted to look over at us. “Will you just shut up about it, already?” I hissed.
She was slowly shaking her over-permed head. “I got nothin' to say about this, so I'll just say that you need to watch yourself, missy. You might think these assholes around here are just dumb farmers—but they're smart enough to know the signs of a fox rootin' around in the henhouse. You don't straighten up and fly right, you'll be picking buckshot outta your backside.” She lowered her voice. “El DeBarge, too.” She pushed her chair back and struggled to her feet. “I got nothin' else to say about it.”
I sighed. “She's really not like that, Lu. Really.”
Luanne collected her plate and silverware. “Not like what?”
“Not like people think. She's not using me.”
Luanne looked at me like I'd just said I was the first person to have sex with Misty Ann Marks.
“You just keep tellin' yourself them fairy stories. I gotta get back to the line.”
I got up, too.
“See you later at Hoosier Daddy?” I asked.
“You know it,” Luanne said. She dropped her plate and silverware into one of the big dish bins near the exit. Then she disappeared out into the plant.
I still had six minutes to spare, so I thought I'd go ahead and grab something to eat and try to talk with Pauline. I was sincerely worried about Earl Junior's lapses. They seemed to be increasing in number. Whatever people thought about Pauline in general, it was clear that she loved her son. I knew she wouldn't want anything bad to happen to him—or, hopefully, to anyone else because of him. I decided that compromising the health of my digestive tract was worth the risk.
I walked over to the steam table and picked up a tray.
Pauline was back there, resplendent in her stained white apron and hair net.
“Hey, Pauline,” I called out. “What's good today?”
She rapped the edge of a big aluminum cistern with a spoon. “Got some fresh S.O.S.” She jerked her platinum blond head toward a small side table covered with platters of white bread. “Got some sourdough for it, too.”
“I think I'll pass on that…I don't do too well with gravy. Anything I can eat on the fly?” I held up my arm and showed her my watch. “I'm just about outta time.”
“How about one of them potato empanadas, over there? They just come outta the deep fryer.”
God...in for a penny, in for a pound. “Great. Nobody makes those as good as you.”
She smiled and walked over to slap one on a plate. It nearly slid off, and left a shiny trail of grease in its wake.
I figured I could always feed it to Fritz later on…he loved Pauline's leftovers.
“Anything with it?” she asked. “Tartar sauce or salsa?”
“Um. No. That'll do me.” I reached out to take the plate from her. “Pauline…I did want to mention something to you about Earl Junior. I'm kinda worried about him.”
Pauline pulled the plate back out of my reach. “What do you mean?” Her voice had taken on that suspicious edge it got whenever she felt threatened—like she'd just swallowed a pack of razor blades. I knew I only had a few seconds to turn things around.
“I've been noticing that he seems a little…preoccupied lately. I worry that something might be…bothering him.”
“Nothin's botherin' him. He's fine, ” she snapped. “That Luanne Keortge just has it in for him because she had to walk her fat ass in three feet further than usual this morning.”
“No, Pauline…that's not what I meant…”
She cut me off. “I'm sick and tired of the damn conspiracy against Earl Junior around here. Everybody is just jealous because he's likely to get that promotion to warehouse manager.”
“Promotion?” This was the first I'd heard about any promotion—or about any managerial slots opening up. “What promotion?”
Pauline was glaring at me with her beady eyes. “Don't think I don't know what your little game is. You just want to tar his reputation so you can ruin his chances at this job. But I got news for you—everybody here knows what you been up to with that U.A.W. spy…carryin' on like a harlot.”
“Pauline…that's not what I…”
“Save it. Your six minutes is up.” She dug her big spoon down deep into the steaming vat of goo and slopped a heaping mess of it on top of my empanada.
“Here's your lunch.” She thrust the plate toward me. “Now git outta here before Buzz comes lookin' for you.”
I was stupefied, and stared down at the gummy mass now spreading out across my plate. Then I gave up and beat a hasty retreat to pay for my eclectic plate of inedible S.O.S.
One thing was for sure: Luanne wasn't the only one who was going to have a tough time making it until the next ten-minute break.
The mood at Hoosier Daddy that night was pretty morose. I wasn't the only one slinking in there with a backside burned raw from all the bitching it had taken from managers who were scared to death about what might happen when the first wave of Ogata's transition team showed up. People were grumbling and going on at every table. It was clear there wasn't going to be any karaoke tonight…nobody was much in the mood for singing.
I did notice that there was a lot of lively activity over at Tony Gemelli's table. Things must be good in the agitator business. A few more days like today, and the U.A.W. might have to move its base of operation to a bigger bar.
I didn't see El anyplace. That was probably a good thing. I didn't need anybody else razzing me or giving me flack about what had happened on Sunday. I didn't know what in the world I had been thinking when I let myself go like that. I knew that El was going to be here, then gone, and I'd be left alone again—this time with a ruined reputation and, probably, a truck bed full of manure.
It was depressing. No matter how hard I tied, I always seemed to make bad relationship choices. It was like clockwork. If somebody plopped me down in front of a cosmic police lineup of potential girlfriends, I could be counted on to point my finger at the one suspect who would be guaranteed to bring me the most misery and heartache. I thought for the zillionth time about quitting my job and moving someplace else. Maybe St. Louis? One of my college roommates was now teaching in the business school at Washington University, and kept bugging me to come out there and get my M.B.A. Maybe she was right…it was going to take me the rest of my natural life to finish it online.
Just like it would probably take the rest of my natural life for me to meet someone who wouldn't end up using my heart as a doormat.
Aunt Jackie slapped a second bottle of cold Stella down in front of me. I hadn't even realized that my first one was nearly empty.
“You look like you need this,” she said. “Must a been some kind of day at that plant. I never seen so many long faces in here.”
Lucille was tottering along behind her. He turned around a couple of times, then plopped his fat body down near the leg of my table and grunted. He was staring at the door that led to the parking lot. Even he looked depressed.
“Thanks, Aunt Jackie.” I tried to shake myself out of my mood. “Is something wrong with Lucille? He looks off tonight.”
“Oh, hell. He's just lookin' for that union woman.”
I was shocked. “Who?”
“That other agitator…El somebody.”
“El?” I asked.
“DeBarge, ain't it? El DeBarge.”
“Why is he looking for her?”
Aunt Jackie rolled her eyes. “He's just in love with her.” She looked down at her obese companion. “Ain't that just the damndest thing? This dog don't give nobody the time of day. But all that union woman has to do is wag her fanny at him, and he'll about give himself a hernia doin' tricks. Tricks . He ain't ever done tricks—not unless you count holdin' the world record for the most consecutive farts.”
I didn't really know how to respond. I was pretty sure that if El wagged her fanny at me, I'd be making a fool of myself, too—doing cartwheels and handstands, or anything else that would capture her attention. Beneath the table, Lucille grunted again.
I know exactly how you feel, buddy, I thought.
“I ain't never seen this dog so hot to trot over somebody. Not unless you count that damn candyass Affenpinscher that Jerry Sneddin used to bring in here. Lucille was the same way about her.”
I remembered Jerry's fussy little dog. He used to bring it to the plant all the time, and it barked constantly. They were pretty inseparable.
“What happened to Jerry's dog? Nobody's seen it in a while.”
Aunt Jackie snorted. “She's at home with her litter of nine puppies.”
I looked down at Lucille, who was now sniffing his business. “Uh oh.”
“You don't know the half of it. Now that ass-wipe is trying to hold me up for support payments…for a damn dog. And he says I have to take the whole kit and caboodle of mongrels, too. Now just what in the hell am I gonna do with nine of the ugliest dogs in god's creation?”
“Nine?” Nine dogs that looked like toy versions of Lucille?
Suddenly, my problems felt pretty small.
Aunt Jackie shook her head. “ Jack-Affs . That's what he calls them…Jack-Affs. Hell. Who knows? Maybe I can start some kind of boutique trend and sell ‘em each for king's ransom.”
I nodded. “Then again…maybe you can get Lucille…” I lowered my voice so he wouldn't hear, and made cutting motions with my fingers, “fixed.”
“Shit.” Aunt Jackie was watching my delicate pantomime. “They'd have to use hedge clippers on this boy. He's got a bigger pair than most of the men who come into this joint.”
Against my will, I looked down at Lucille, who was wholly engrossed with his nether bits now. Aunt Jackie was right: he was pretty…exceptional.
“You might be right.”
Aunt Jackie sighed. “So that union woman better just keep watchin' her p's and q's.”
“Where is El?” I tried my best to sound nonchalant.
Aunt Jackie wasn't buying it. “She ain't here—and you don't need to go lookin' for her, neither.” She lowered her voice. “If them agitators wasn't so good for business, I'd tell ‘em to clear on outta here. I don't need nobdy sowing discord in my place. But ever since the filter plant closed, I've had a hard time making ends meet.” Her eyes looked dreamy. “Those second shift boys sure could sock it away.”
“Hey? Friday?” a voice bellowed. It was T-Bomb. She was making her way across the bar with Luanne huffing along behind her. I heard Lucille emit a half-hearted growl.
“Oh, lord.” Aunt Jackie sighed. “Talk about people who can sock it away.” She looked down at me. “You heed my warnin' about them agitators, honey. No good can come outta that for you. Now I better go tap off a couple more pitchers. That keg is almost empty and I need to change it out before the rest of your pals roll in.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Aunt Jackie.”
She walked off in a blaze of blue polyester.
“How long you been here?” T-Bomb demanded.
Luanne dropped her suitcase-sized purse down on a chair. “I gotta hit the loo…that S.O.S. has been cramping me all afternoon.” She eyed me. “How'd your chat go with Pauline?”
I shrugged. “I've been pretty cramped-up, too. Tell you anything?”
Luanne snorted. “That woman is a menace to public health.” She adjusted the waistband of her pants through her oversized blouse. This one had enormous tiger lilies all over it. “Get us a pitcher, T-Bomb. I need something to wash that taste outta my mouth.”
“I'm all over it,” T-Bomb said.
Luanne was already heading toward the bathroom. “And ask Aunt Jackie for some toothpicks. I got a corn husk stuck in a molar…”
“Dang, that woman is high maintenance.” T-Bomb turned around on her chair and waved a hand toward the bar. When she caught Aunt Jackie's eye, she made a pouring motion with one hand, and held up two fingers on the other.
“What about the toothpicks?” I asked.
“Hell…I got some of them in my purse—leftover from last week, when I pissed Pauline off.” She started rummaging around in her cavernous shoulder bag. She had an enormous, lime green colored one today. It perfectly matched her Capri pants—which was shocking and disturbing all at the same time. “Hey? You goin' to the fish fry on Saturday night?”
The V.F.W. fish fry was one of the biggest social events of the season in Princeton. Everybody kind of considered it the Indiana equivalent of Pork Day.
“I suppose so.”
“Well, don't sound so excited. It should be fun this year. I hear the women's group at Owensville U.M.C. is makin' all the fruit pies. That'll be a nice change from that nasty banana pudding them band boosters brought last time.”
“I know. I thought I'd see if Grammy wants to go. She missed it last year.”
“That gout of hers was acting up, wasn't it?”
“Well,” T-Bomb pulled a bundle of cellophane wrapped toothpicks out of her purse and slapped them down on the table in front of Luanne's chair. “Tell her to eat cherries. That's what the doctor told Donnie. But between you and me, I think his problem comes from spending too much time on his duff in that La-Z-Boy.”
There was a burst of loud laughter coming from Tony Gemelli's table. Several guys were giving each other high-fives.
Aunt Jackie showed up with the pitcher of Old Style and two glasses.
“What's that about?” T-Bomb asked, pointing across the room.
Aunt Jackie shrugged. “Them agitators is just doin' what they do…workin' the crowd—gettin' everybody all liquored up and sympathetic to their cause. I seen it happen about fifty-eleven times, now. It don't pay no never-mind, neither. Once that vote happens, they're gone—no matter which way things pan out.”
T-Bomb was staring right at me the whole time Aunt Jackie was talking. If her eyes had been lasers, I'd have had two holes burned into my forehead.
“I gotta get back over there,” Aunt Jackie huffed. “As much as I hate to see them union types show up, they're damn good for business.” She tugged at the straps of her bra to reseat her ample set of assets, then turned around and lumbered back toward the bar.
“What?” I asked T-Bomb. She was still starting at me, and now she had one eyebrow raised.
“Don't sit there and act like you don't know what you're doing, Missy.”
“I haven't ‘done' anything.”
“Oh, yeah?” T-Bomb poured out two glasses of beer. “What do you call that little tango number the two of you was doin' yesterday in the bathroom?”
“That was an accident, and you know it.”
“Accident my derriere. You must think I was born yesterday.”
“No,” I muttered. “It takes most of a lifetime to develop your unique fashion sense.”
T-Bomb lowered her glass of beer. “What'd you say?”
Luanne made her way back to the table and dropped into her chair. The thing groaned and swayed beneath her weight, but she stayed on top of it with all the grace of an experienced broncobuster.
“How was that corn report?” T-Bomb asked.
Luanne rolled her eyes. “About as productive as that patch Jay planted out behind the shed.”
T-Bomb laughed. “Well maybe he'd have better luck if he moved some of them rusted Oldsmobiles outta there.”
“You try telling him that. He swears they're gonna make a comeback, and he wants to have the market cornered when they do.”
“Hell,” T-Bomb took a big drink from her frothy glass of beer. “If they do, he'll need a ton of them see-through seat covers and a butt-load of Bondo.”
Luanne was looking around the bar. “I see that business is good at the union table.”
“T-Bomb nodded. “It always is until the credit card runs out.”
“You can't really blame them,” I added. “At least it livens things up for a while.”
They both looked at me like I had lost my last marble.
I waved a hand. “Come on…tell me it's not true. It gives everybody something new to think about, instead of obsessing over things they can't change.”
“You been hanging out at the House of Praise again?” T-Bomb asked.
“Of course not.”
“Well, you might as well just dye your hair blonde and start line dancin' with them hoppers, if you're gonna keep talkin' mess like that.”
I looked at her. “You know it's true. There are things at the plant that need to be changed.”
“I guess you heard about Earl Junior's promotion, then?” Luanne asked.
“You mean he got it?” I was incredulous. “I thought that was just a rumor started by Pauline.”
Luanne shook her head. “Nope. Looks like we got ourselves a new warehouse manager.”
“What the hell was wrong with the last one?” T-Bomb asked.
“That Davis girl? She couldn't find her own ass with two hands and a flashlight, much less keep up with a pallet full of brake shoes.”
“So they replaced her with Earl Junior?” I asked.
“That's all we need.” T-Bomb was shaking her head. “Drool all over the stock. Hey? Maybe they can start calling them Outlaw 450 tires Droolers ?” She laughed at her own joke.
I sighed and glanced over at Tony's table. There was still no sign of El. I wondered where she was. Beneath our table, Lucille grunted. Pathetic , I thought. I'm a lodge sister with a lovesick Jack Russell.
I finished my Stella and pushed back my chair. “I gotta hit the road.”
“Why?” T-Bomb looked disappointed. “We just got here.”
“I know. But I still have to stop by Grammy's and pick up Fritz.”
“Well, don't forget to ask her about the fish fry.”
“Why don't you just get her a dog of her own, instead of leaving Fritz over there all the time?” Luanne asked.
“She likes Fritz.” I shrugged. “They watch her stories together.”
“Hey!” T-Bomb interrupted. “You can give her one of them Jack-Aff puppies. I saw them last week and they're kinda cute…once you get past all the wiry hair and under bite.”
“I don't think so.”
“They're kinda like Jerry,” T-Bomb cackled. “Only better looking.”
“Yeah,” I said. “There's a mental image I didn't need. See you both tomorrow.”
I waved goodbye and headed for the exit. There were now about a dozen people clustered around Tony Gemelli's table. It looked like half of the first shift maintenance techs were there, plus a smattering of guys I recognized from the pipefitting area. I figured that once the word got out about Earl Junior, Tony would probably need to move his base of operations to the VFW hall—Hoosier Daddy wouldn't be big enough to accommodate everybody.
It was pretty quiet outside in the parking lot. There was nearly a full moon, and everything looked brighter and cleaner than usual. Of course, this also meant that all the night critters would be active—so Fritz would be up and down off the bed about a hundred times. I wondered if maybe I should just leave him at Grammy's?
I was nearly to my truck when I noticed that something about it seemed off. It was listing to the left slightly. What the hell? I walked around to the passenger side and saw that it had a flat tire. Great. This was just what I needed…to have to change a damn tire at eight o'clock at night.
I looked around for options—like an unattended vehicle with the keys still in the ignition. There were none, of course. I was going to have to deal with this on my own.
I stood there for a minute and toyed with the idea of heading back inside to see if one of the guys would come out and help me—but I let go of that fantasy pretty quickly. If I asked for help, I'd never live it down back at work. I sighed and unlocked the passenger door so I could retrieve the jack kit from beneath the rear seat.
I had the spare unloaded and was halfway through loosening the lug nuts on the flat when a voice from just behind me made me about jump out of my skin.
“Need a hand?” it asked.
“Shit!” I was so startled that I dropped the torque wrench and it hit me on the ankle.
“Sorry,” the voice apologized. It was El.
I angled my body around so I could see her. Even in the semidarkness of the parking lot, I could tell that she looked fabulous. She had a skirt on tonight, and from my vantage point, her legs looked like they were about nine miles long—which was odd, since she was about a foot shorter than me.
El followed my gaze. “Something wrong with my legs?”
“No, they look just fine.” Shit. Where did that come from?
She raised her eyes to my face and half-smiled. I felt like an idiot.
“I'm not used to seeing you in a skirt,” I explained. “You look…different.”
“I do?” She dropped her voice about six octaves. It wasn't helping. “Different, how?”
“I don't know. Fussier. More girlie.” Great. Now I was channeling T-Bomb.
“Girlie?” She laughed. “I hope I look ‘girlie.' I mean, after all, I am a girl.”
There was no doubt about that. Plopped right down next to the word “girl” in anyone's dictionary would be a big ole photo of El—looking fabulous, and sexy as hell.
I tried to regain control. “Why are you so dressed up? This ensemble is a bit…haute…for Hoosier Daddy.”
El folded her arms. “I forget what a scholar you are.”
“I'm hardly a scholar.”
“You certainly aren't typical…” She let her sentence trail off.
“Typical of what?” I was curious now.
“No. You started it.” I wasn't letting her off the hook that easily. “Typical of what?”
El looked uncomfortable.
I jerked a thumb toward the bar. “Typical of the other schmoes inside who can be bought off with a few beers and a couple of propaganda film strips?”
El just stared back at me for a moment.
“We don't use film strips any more,” she finally said. “We have iPads.”
Okay. I felt like a real heel now.
“I'm sorry. That was pretty rude.”
She shook her head. “No. It was pretty honest.”
I got tired of squatting and decided to plop back and sit on my butt. I was wearing jeans, so I didn't really care about getting dirty. Besides, I was feeling pretty low, and thought my posture should match my mood. El continued to stand over me with her arms crossed.
“I'm still sorry,” I said.
“And I'm still a labor organizer,” she replied.
“I guess that makes us strange bedfellows.”
I was glad to be sitting down.
“Are you always this direct?”
She shrugged. “It saves time.”
“Are you in a hurry?”
“On whatever is chasing me.”
“Whatever or whoever?”
“That depends, too.”
I looked down at the torque wrench I had been turning over and over in my hands. “Am I chasing you?”
“I hope so.”
I looked up at her.
“I promise to let you catch me,” she added.
I nearly dropped the wrench again.
El squatted down and somehow managed to fold herself into a textbook, seated posture on the ground beside me. She looked perfect and poised—just like one of the glamorous starlets who adorned the covers of those musty old Photoplay magazines I used to flip through out in Grammy's garage. She smelled great. Like night-blooming Jasmine.
“How'd you end up with a flat?” she asked.
I was beginning to learn that this method of verbal bait-and-switch was part of her style. Since she was letting both of us off the hook, I decided to roll with it.
“I have no idea. I just came out here and noticed that the thing wasn't sitting right.”
“But it was okay when you left work?”
She shook her head.
“What?” I asked.
“Don't you think this is kind of a coincidence?”
I wasn't sure what she was getting at. “My flat?” I asked.
She nodded again.
“Not really. I probably picked up a nail or something in the parking lot.”
El raised an eyebrow. “There are lots of loose nails lying about in your parking lot?”
“No. But there are a lot of trucks that double as farm vehicles in our parking lot. It's not beyond the pale that something fell out of one of them.”
“I hope you're right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I just hope your right.”
I looked at my tire, then back at her. “You think somebody did this on purpose, don't you?”
“I think it's possible, yes.”
I didn't want to accept that explanation. “I don't know why anyone would bother…I haven't done anything to make myself a target.”
El didn't say anything.
“You disagree?” I asked.
“Let me ask you a question. Have you ever been involved with any attempt to organize this plant in the past?”
“No. But…” I didn't finish.
I looked at her. “I'm not involved with it now, either.”
El looked surprised and disappointed by my response. I wished I could take it back.
She shifted her position. The neon light from the bar sign made colorful highlights on her dark hair. She really was just about the most gorgeous woman I'd ever seen, and I was acting like an imbecile. She had to think I was some kind of psycho yo-yo. Only yesterday, I'd been the one minimizing the obstacles that were bound to trip us up like cheap throw rugs. Now I was acting like what had happened in the bathroom at Fast Mart meant nothing to me.
“I didn't mean it like that,” I said. It sounded pretty flimsy…even to me.
El sighed. “Forget about it.”
“I don't want to forget about it.
She stared at me for so long that I began to feel even more uncomfortable. “I don't think you have first idea about what you want, Friday Jill.”
Touché. “That's always been true.”
“Maybe you should figure it out, then, before you put yourself in harm's way.”
“I'm not in harm's way, El.”
She waved a hand in frustration. “Well, what in the hell do you call this, then?”
“I told you…I probably picked up a nail.”
“Take a look around this parking lot. There are probably at least a dozen, half-drunk OTI workers inside, swilling beer at Tony's table.”
She rolled her eyes. “So…that means there are at least three dozen, half-drunk OTI workers inside watching them—and getting more pissed-off with each pitcher-full of beer. Any one of them could have oozed out here and let the air out of your tire.”
“Oh, come on, El…that's just plain ridiculous. They'd be likelier to key my paint job or piss on my rims. Letting the air out of my tires would take too long.” I shook my head in disbelief. “Besides, there's no reason for them to target me. I'm not the one sitting at your comrade's table talking treason.”
“Maybe not. But you were the one locked up with me in the bathroom yesterday.”
“They didn't see that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That doesn't mean they don't know about it.”
I had no response to that.
El glanced down at her watch. “This is getting us nowhere—and I need to get inside. Tony probably thinks I got abducted by aliens.”
That got my curiosity up. “What have you been doing?”
“Talking with the boys at Solidarity House.”
“You need reinforcements?”
She looked amused. “No. I think this one might be a lost cause.”
“You do?” I wasn't expecting that response. “Does that mean you'll be leaving?”
“Probably—unless something shakes loose soon. We only had a finite window to try and close this before the transition team got spooled up.”
“I guess you heard that they're coming in later this week?”
I suddenly felt like someone had let the air out of all of my tires—even the metaphorical ones.
“Where will you be off to next?”
“I honestly don't know. Maybe home.” She rested a hand on my shoulder and slowly got to her feet. When she had regained a standing position, she removed her hand. I wanted to reach out and pull it back, but I didn't.
“Sure you don't want my help?” she asked.
“Nope.” I held up my torque wrench. “I've got everything I need.”
We stared at each other for few moments. I was pretty certain that El knew I wasn't talking about the tire. I was also pretty sure she knew I was lying through my teeth.
“I guess I'll see you around,” she said.
She turned away and headed toward the bar. I watched her straight back evaporate into the darkness as she walked off—fading away like misplaced hope. Then something occurred to me. I quickly scrambled to my feet.
“Hey, El?” I called out.
She stopped and turned around.
“You're still coming to dinner at Grammy's tomorrow night, aren't you?”
She seemed to think about that. “You still want me to?”
“Yes.” I knew with certainty that I wanted it more than anything.
She seemed to hesitate.
“Please, El. I want you.” I paused. “I mean…I want you to come.” Oh Judas . “I mean…to Grammy's. I want you to come to Grammy's.”
Though the semidarkness, I thought I could see her smile. She raised a hand and pointed toward my truck.
“Right now, it looks like you have bigger fish to fry.”
“What are you talking about?”
I felt something brush against my pant leg. What the hell? I looked down. Lucille.
“Oh, no!” I reached toward him, but it was too late. He'd already raised his fat leg and pissed all over my tire. I had to hand it to him: he had pretty good aim. He managed to hit every single one of the lug nuts.
“Oh, man.” I lowered my torque wrench. This all just went from bad to worse at Mach ten.
Lucille had finished the job and was now high-tailing his fat ass toward El…of course.
Just my luck…I get stuck with a urine-soaked flat tire, and Lucille walks off with the girl.
I hated my life right then.
“I'll be there.”
I looked over at El. She was smiling at me, and reaching down to pat Lucille, who was dancing around her feet like a marionette.
Maybe things weren't so bad after all.
To Be Continued…
Return to the Academy