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.
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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.
T-Bomb was running late when she picked me up on Friday morning, so we didn't have time to stop at Huck's for coffee. I ducked into the break room before clocking in, just to grab a fast cup. That's when I saw it, big as life, tacked to the message board over the trashcan…right where it belonged. It was a leaflet. Typed up on somebody's PC and printed on bright orange paper.
WILL THIS PLANT CLOSE IF THE UNION GETS IN?
Here are the facts:
FACT: Unions never did anything to help American workers.
FACT: Unions make plants close, and jobs go overseas.
FACT: Unions make the cost of living get higher and push people onto welfare.
FACT: Unions want to control your time and your money.
FACT: Unions make you play by THEIR rules, whether you agree with them or not.
FACT: Union bosses are your judge and jury.
FACT: Unions can take away your seniority.
FACT: Unions can force companies to cut wages and benefits.
FACT: Unions will use any lies or tactics to get you to sign up.
Who wants to pay dues for that?
SAVE OUR JOBS! GET THE FACTS!!
It was pretty clear to me that this hadn't come from Buzz or Joe. For one thing, it wasn't chock-full of spelling errors, and it actually had punctuation that made sense. This one had Don K.'s fingerprints all over it. He must really be running scared if he was stooping to scare tactics like this flier—and the “promotion” he'd dangled in front of me the day before. I wondered if El and Tony were wrong about their dwindling prospects for getting a vote at OTI?
I looked at the orange leaflet again. I also wondered if it would be treasonous for me to tell them about this? There was no way propaganda like this could be legal. But little details like that never stopped guys like Don K. It was clear that he wasn't going to let anything get between him and his Japanese-made golden parachute. I was just about to pull the thing off the board and stick it in my pocket when I heard the break room door open.
“I should've known you'd be all over that ,” a brittle-sounding voice behind me declared.
I turned around. Misty Ann Marks. Great. Just what I needed.
I wasn't sure I cared to understand what her remark meant, so I didn't say anything.
She waved a hand at the bulletin board. I noticed that her nail extensions were bright pink and dotted with glitter. Grammy would say she was “puttin' on the Ritz.” One thing was true about Misty Ann: whatever she was ‘puttin' on,' she managed to make it look fast and cheap.
“I heard you were all lathered up over that union agitator,” she snorted. “She's right up your alley, too. Classy. Maybe you two should start a book club? But then, she won't be around long enough to finish anything, will she?”
“Misty Ann…the only thing around here that's ‘finished' is this conversation.”
I tried to move by her, but she stepped in front of me.
“Not so fast,” she said. “You sure had time for me when you didn't have anyone better to play around with.”
I sighed. “That's not true, and you know it. You never had any intention of breaking up with your husband.”
“Oh, now that bothers you?” she sneered. “Funny…I don't remember you being all concerned about the state of my marriage any of those times we played tonsil hockey in the back seat of his car.”
“Save it.” Her hand flew across the front of her throat in a mock, slashing gesture. “I'm tired of being used by turncoats like you. You're no better than the rest of those deadbeats out there who think a damn union is the answer to all their problems. Donny thinks you're on his side—but I know better. You'll choose a pretty piece of ass over loyalty to this company any day.”
Donny? Don K. and Misty Ann? Good god….
“I don't have time for this.” I pushed past her and headed for the door.
“That's right,” she called after me. “You run along and make your little report. I'm sure your girlfriend and the rest of her union trash are waiting to hear from you.”
I stormed out of the break room and headed for the line. I was halfway there before I calmed down enough to realize that not only had I forgotten to pick up my cup of coffee, I'd forgotten to punch the damn time clock. My little “interlude” with Misty Ann was going to cost me an hour's pay—Krylon didn't believe in splitting hairs. If you were ten minutes late, you got docked for an hour. Oh…and you got a nice butt-chewing from Buzz Sheets, too. For a day that started out so great, this one was sure going to hell in a hand basket at light speed.
There were several guys standing around near the time clock when I reached it. I didn't recognize two of them—but the third was a flunky who worked up front with Joe Sykes. I nodded and said hello, but they just stared back at me without speaking. It gave me a creepy feeling, but I shrugged it off. I didn't want my encounter with Misty Ann to make me paranoid.
I could tell there was something different about my time card as soon as I started to pull it out of its slot. It felt…heavier…more rigid. Then I noticed that something was attached to it. I turned it over. Part of a union authorization card was taped to the back. Someone had written my name on it, and the words “UAW Whore” were scrawled beneath it on the job title line.
One of the men I didn't know started snickering.
I turned to face them. “You guys know anything about this?” I held up the card.
They shook their heads in unison. Joe's flunky managed to pull a straight face.
“You never know who your friends are, do you?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes. “You guys must be a real hoot on Halloween.” I tore their little love note off my time card. I was going to drop it into the trash, but thought better of it and stuck it into my back pocket instead. I could still hear the three of them laughing as I walked away.
I felt like every pair of eyes in the plant were burning holes into my back as I made my way to my section. What the hell was going on? Did Nancy and Udean pilot one of their damn Christian Tour busses past my house? I wondered if the entire plant knew that El and I had spent the night together.
It wasn't T-Bomb who'd spread the word. I was certain of that. As much as she loved to gossip, she had a code where her own were concerned.
Hell. Why was I surprised by this behavior? Half the population of Princeton watched us leave the VFW hall together last night. I remembered how I followed along at El's heels like a dazed rodent, being led out of town by the pied piper.
I actually had to smile at that. The “rat” reference wasn't too far off the mark. I congratulated myself for the metaphor.
Luanne Keortge was waiting for me when I reached the chassis assembly line. She did not look happy.
“Where the hell have you been? Buzz Sheets has been up my ass for the last half hour.” She looked at her watch, then at my face. “Never mind. I guess I know the answer to that.”
“Hey? Don't blame me for being late. I rode in with T-Bomb.”
Luanne was giving me a good once over. “Well, you look like you been up half the night.”
She held up a hand. “Oh, lord. Spare me any of them details about what you all do between the sheets.”
I looked around. “Would you mind not broadcasting that?”
“Hell. Nobody in this place could hear an atom bomb going off. Besides. You two weren't what I'd call discreet leavin' the fish fry last night.”
I ran a hand over my face. This was going nowhere fast.
“You talk with your Grammy yet?”
Grammy. Shit. I hadn't even thought about that yet.
“No.” I was afraid to ask. “Was she okay?”
Luanne chuffed. “You're just lucky she was more concerned with trading out them damn combat gnomes for that dog spa thing. She didn't even notice you were gone until after the raffle was over.”
“Did Ermaline give her a ride home?”
Luanne nodded. “She and Doc have already invited everybody out to their place for a pool party.” She shook her head. “If that don't beat all. Those two need a damn swimmin' pool about as much as a parakeet needs a can opener.” She looked over my shoulder. “Shit. Here comes that dipstick Buzz Sheets again.” She glared at me. “Hope you're locked and loaded. I'm getting' back to work. See you later at Hoosier Daddy?”
I nodded. “I still have to pick up my truck.”
She waved and waddled off down the line.
Buzz was fuming. I held up a hand to halt his tirade before he had a chance to spool up.
“I know I'm late, okay? But I'm here now, and it won't happen again.”
Buzz was already sweating, and it was barely seven-thirty. He must've been raising hell over in the section of the plant where the AC was still out. His cheap plaid shirt was showing dark, underarm stains that were about the size of radial tires. He mopped at his forehead with a yellowed handkerchief.
“You and that loudmouth Jennings have about pushed me to my last stand. When you don't show up on time, I have to find somebody to cover your station, and that costs me money.”
“It's not your money, Buzz.”
“See? That's exactly the problem with troublemakers like you.” He fumbled around in his shirt pocket. It was stuffed so full of papers, pens, and notepads that it sagged forward. Half the stitching on one side had already started to give way. The distended square of fabric sagging off the front of his chest was like a plaid fishing net. Finally, he found what he was looking for. He held out a folded square of bright orange paper.
“You need to read this. It talks all about people just like you.”
I glanced down at the flier like I'd never seen it before.
“What is it?”
He shook it back and forth. “Just take it. Maybe you'll learn something. They told us to pass these out to people like you.”
People like me?
“You mean line supervisors?” I asked. I took the paper from him. I knew that the best way to keep him talking was to act like the dimwit he thought I was.
“No. Not line supervisors,” he scoffed. “Jesus, Fryman. You need to get with a program.”
I started to unfold the paper, but Buzz stopped me.
“Read that on your own goddamn time.”
I looked up at him. “Do you need it back?”
“Nope.” He patted his sagging shirt pocket. “Got plenty more of ‘em to pass out. Now just get to work. And be glad you're only getting docked for one hour.”
One hour's pay for being ten minutes late. It was ridiculous. “Buzz…” I began.
“Stow it, Fryman. That bus has sailed.”
He walked off.
Idiot. I shoved the orange square of paper into the back pocket of my pants and put on my safety goggles. It was going to be a long day.
When T-Bomb and I pulled into the parking lot at Hoosier Daddy, we noticed a couple of people milling around beside my truck. They all seemed to be looking at something.
“Well that can't be good news,” T-Bomb roared into a space and jerked to a stop, causing the mound of stuffed animals behind me to slide across the cargo area. Somewhere at the bottom of the heap, Elmo started cackling. I sighed and reached for the door handle so I could climb out of the back seat of the minivan.
The cluster of people who had been blocking our view evaporated as soon as they saw us approaching. I could see why. The words “RIGHT TO WORK” were spray-painted across the side of my truck in fluorescent, blaze orange. I actually had a fleeting thought that Don K.'s minions were doing a pretty good job with their union-busting campaign…orange was clearly their signature color. In this application, it stood out very well against the navy blue backdrop of my Outlaw 250.
I felt my shoulders droop.
“I really can't take much more of this.”
“Them assholes!” T-Bomb was loaded for bear. “They can think whatever they want, but they don't have the right to damage personal property this way.” She walked around the truck. “Well, dang,” she called out. “It's on this side, too.”
Of course it was. I sagged against the bed of my truck. Maybe Grammy would let me borrow her ancient Ram 1500 while I got this thing painted? Whoever did the defacing was a master: they made sure they hit all four sides of the vehicle. There was even some kind of impressionistic flourish on top of the cab. To my untrained eye, it looked like a lame attempt at recreating part of the female anatomy.
“Maybe I'll keep that,” I said aloud.
“What the hell are you talkin' about?” T-Bomb demanded. “This just makes me madder'n a hornet's nest.”
I pointed to the top of the truck. “That's got kind of a Georgia O'Keefe flair, don't you think?”
T-Bomb looked at me like she expected me to start drooling at any second.
“Pornographic is what it is.” She stood back and clucked her tongue. “You ain't gonna get this mess fixed at Earl Scheib. You're gonna have to have this whole dern thing professionally repainted.”
“I guess I asked for it, leaving the thing parked here unattended all night.”
“Are you nuts? Nobody asks for this.” She waved a hand over the truck in disgust. “It's just hooliganism. Downright hooliganism.”
I sighed. “I'm not driving this anyplace. Will you give me a ride out to Grammy's, so I can borrow her truck? I'll have somebody from Quick Stop come over and pick this up. Mike Scoggins does a good job on paint and detail work.”
She nodded. “Okay. But first we're going inside for a drink. I'm about parched from workin' in that dern sweat shop all day.”
“Can we make it a quick one?”
She eyed me suspiciously. “Why? You got a hot date or somethin'?”
“No. I'm just on overload from all of this crap. I'd like to know what in the hell happened? I feel like I'm walking around with a target on my back.”
“Well, hell. If you don't think dosey doe‘in your way across that VFW hall with El DeBarge last night was enough to land you right smack in the middle of about two hundred sets of crosshairs, then you ain't half as smart as I thought you were.”
“Don't start, okay?”
“Don't start? You're telling me not to start? That's rich.”
“Come on.” She started walking toward the bar. “We can argue about this inside. I promised Luanne we'd meet up with her here. She's about off her rocker over that damn competition tomorrow.”
Shit. Pork Day. “I forgot about that.”
“You forgot about Pork Day? What the hell is the matter with you?”
“Nothing is the matter with me. I'm just tired.”
She burst into laughter. “I don't doubt it. That El DeBarge looks like she's got some stamina.”
“That isn't what I….”
She cut me off. “Don't even go there, missy. Even with all this dern union mess heatin' up, you've been runnin' around all day with a shit-eatin' grin on your face. It don't take no scientist to figure out what put it there.”
I had a hard time denying that one, so I didn't even try.
My cell phone vibrated. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at the display. It was a text message…from El.
“Do you mind if I answer this?” I held up the phone. “I'll meet you inside in just a minute.”
“Oh, so now you're not in so much of a hurry? I get it.” She strode off toward the entrance to the bar. “Tell that El DeBarge I said to keep her powder dry. It looks like huntin' season is comin' early this year.”
I watched her go inside. Then I sat down on the running board of my truck to read my first-ever text message from El.
Hi there, F-J. So sorry I haven't been able to call before now. Tony and I are in Evansville at the NRLB satellite office. We should be heading out before long. Will you be around? Would it be okay if I called when we get back to Princeton? I know it's unseemly, but I miss you. Last night was lovely. Perfect. Really.
It was crazy. I'd had what was arguably the worst day of my entire work life, but staring at that tiny screen with its short, tidy rows of vowels and consonants was nearly as intoxicating as staring at El. Her mention of last night sent small shivers up and down my limbs. Lovely? It was beyond lovely. It was beyond anything I'd ever experienced. I didn't have a vocabulary to describe what last night had been like for me.
Maybe she was right. Waking up before dawn with a naked El draped halfway across me beneath Grammy's old quilt was both lovely and perfect. I decided to give her that one. With her customary dispatch, she'd pretty much nailed it.
I wrote back.
Hello yourself. Let's agree to be unseemly. I miss you, too. Call anytime.
I paused in my typing. Did I want to hint at any of what had happened today? I thought about the orange flier, still folded up in my back pocket. What was that old bible verse? “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” No. It could all wait until later. It was likely that with all her contacts inside the plant, she'd find out about everything before I had to tell her, anyway.
I'm at Hoosier Daddy with T-Bomb, but I'll be going home soon.
I hesitated again. Then I decided I had nothing more to lose. I was already in it with both feet.
P.S. Lovely and perfect about sum it up for me, too. Really.
I sent the message and stood up to head inside. I was halfway across the parking lot when my phone vibrated again.
You just made this agitator very happy.
I smiled and stuck my phone into my pocket.
A cold Stella was starting to sound pretty good, after all.
“I'm tellin' you, them juries is all fixed.” Luanne was warming to her topic—and her second pitcher of Old Style. “There's no way in hell them Turpin girls can walk away with that crown year after year. Between the three of them, they only have one full set of teeth!”
T-Bomb choked on a French fry. Luanne reached out and smacked her between the shoulder blades. “You need to ease off that ketchup, girl. You gotta be rottin' your insides with all that acid.”
“It's not that, ” T-Bomb cleared her throat. “I was thinkin' about how many times they've sashayed across that stage in blousy dresses, tryin to cover up that they had buns in the oven.” She held her hands out in front of her belly.
“You mean like pigs in the poke?” Luanne asked.
They both collapsed into laughter.
I rolled my eyes and stole a glance at my watch. At this rate, I'd be lucky to get home by nine. I looked around the bar to see if I saw anybody else who I might coerce into giving me a ride out to Grammy's.
I felt more than heard the soft buzzing of my cell phone. I fished it out of my pocket and read the message.
Just dropped Tony off at the hotel. Is this an okay time to call?
I looked up at T-Bomb and Luanne. They appeared to be settling in for the evening. It was Friday night, after all, and tomorrow was Pork Day—the second most sacred day of the year in these parts. Hoosier Daddy was hopping with revelers who wanted to jump-start the celebration. They deserved to be able to kick back and join in the fun without having to worry about carting me around.
I wrote back to El.
Got another suggestion. Would you be willing to pick me up at Hoosier Daddy and give me a ride out to Grammy's? I need to borrow her truck for a few days.
A minute later, she wrote back.
Of course! I'd be happy to. But is something wrong with your truck?
I quickly replied.
It's a long story.
El seemed to take my word for it.
Be there in five minutes. Pick you up out front.
Perfect. Now I just needed to make my escape.
T-Bomb was asking Luanne something about Joe Sykes dating Jailissa.
Joe Sykes and Jailissa?
Maybe I needed to rethink my idea about leaving early….
My phone buzzed again.
Make that ETA three minutes.
I smiled. Nope. I was outta there.
“Hey,” I interrupted them by holding up my phone. “I just got a ride out to Grammy's, so I'm heading out. You two stay on and have fun—I'll see you both tomorrow in Albion.”
I stood up to go but T-Bomb reached out a hand to stop me.
“Not so fast.” She nodded toward my cell phone. “Who's picking you up?”
I chewed the inside of my cheek.
“El DeBarge?” She shook her head. “You two are worse than a couple of them dime store rabbits.”
Luanne drained her glass. “You might wanna think about pacing yourselves. All that pounding can wear them things down to nubs if you ain't careful.”
T-Bomb slapped Luanne on the shoulder. “They only have nubs, you dimwit. That's the problem when two girls start hittin' it. There ain't nothin' to wear off.”
I stood there looking back and forth between the two of them. “You don't really need me for this conversation, you know that…right?”
T-Bomb actually smiled at me. “Get on outta here. I ain't seen you this happy since you busted your toe in the ninth grade and got to skip gym for a whole month.”
I smiled back at her. There was a reason she was my best friend. Even when she knew something was probably going to end up kicking my ass, she still stayed right in my corner.
“I'll call you tomorrow.”
“You better.” She waved her hand. “Now git…your girlfriend's waitin'.”
As I walked out and headed for the parking lot, I couldn't help thinking about Joe and Jailissa. And I marveled that even in the throes of real of happiness, the absurd could still find a way to insinuate itself into the middle of my consciousness.
El's face was a picture of shock and disbelief when she saw my truck.
I opened the passenger door on her SUV and climbed in.
“I know,” I said. “Don't even ask.”
“Who the hell did that?” She was fuming.
I snapped my seat belt into place. “Take your pick. One of Don K.'s lackeys, probably.”
“That's reprehensible.” She looked at me. “I'm so sorry about this, Friday Jill.”
Her expression was so earnest that I was tempted to tell her I was thinking about keeping the new paint job. It did exude a certain urban art quality—and it lent a kind of dignity to my misfortune. But I realized that joking about it was probably not the right way to go. Not yet, anyway. Besides, El didn't know about the rest of Don K.'s little campaign, and my starring role in it. I continued to debate about whether or not to tell her.
She could tell that I was not saying something.
“What is it?” she asked.
“What is what?” I replied.
“What is it that you're not telling me?”
“You can tell I'm not telling you something?”
“Of course.” She gestured toward my foot. It was bouncing up and down like the floorboard was on fire. “You have a tell.” She met my eyes. “You'd be a pushover in a poker game.”
I nearly told her that I'd be a pushover in any game she chose to play. But I figured she probably already knew that—I'd done a pretty good job demonstrating it last night.
“Let's get out of here,” I said. “I'll tell you about it all on the way to Grammy's.”
She pulled out of the parking lot, and we headed out of town.
“So here's the deal,” I began.
El looked over at me with a raised eyebrow. “There's a deal?”
“You might want to rethink this revelation…I am a professional negotiator, you know.”
I couldn't help smiling at that. “I know. I remember.”
It was easy to imagine her as a precocious five-year-old, bargaining with her mother to stay up ten minutes past bedtime. Given my recent tenure being on the receiving end of something she wanted, I was pretty certain she won every round.
“I wasn't talking about that ,” she said.
“Too bad. I can't stop thinking about that. ”
“Really?” she asked. She sounded almost shy—a bold departure from her normal mien.
I reached out and rested my hand on her thigh. “Really.”
She slowly shook her dark head. “Some hardcore agitator I turned out to be.”
I laughed. “I don't know. You were pretty successful at getting your way.”
“Not entirely. If memory serves, you were unwilling to try that Brazilian Fork maneuver.”
“Hey,” I held up a palm. “I told you…I draw the line at anything involving chains and roof trusses.”
She laughed merrily. “As long as we understand each other.”
“I think we've made a pretty good start.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“You know I adore your Grammy…but….”
She looked at me. “Do we really have to go out there? Couldn't we just….”
I finished the sentence for her. “Go to my house?”
I was certain that Nancy and Udean probably had my street on their tour roster again for tonight. But given the events of the day, it was hard to imagine that things could get any worse for me.
“I'd like that, too. But, unfortunately, I need some transportation. I can't be late for work again—and I'm having a body shop pick up my truck to repaint it.”
“I don't mean to be selfish,” she explained.
“No,” I interrupted her. “Please. Be selfish.”
“Maybe you could follow me home after we pick up Grammy's truck?” I suggested.
She nodded. “I'd like that.”
“Have you had dinner yet?”
“Well, if I know Grammy, she'll load us up with a vat of something.” We'd reached the turnoff for the backroad. “Left at this stoplight,” I reminded her.
El put her blinker on. “I know. I remember.”
“Are you and Tony going to Albion tomorrow?”
“You're kidding, right? You think I'd miss out on seeing Luanne's daughter get crowned?”
“It's not for certain she will, you know. Those Turpin's have quite a lock on that pageant.”
El laughed. “I think the odds are in her favor this time. Luanne showed me some photos of her dress…it leaves little to the imagination.”
“Really?” That surprised me. Luanne must've really gotten past her reservations about El if she was sharing cell phone pictures of Jailissa with her.
“Yeah. As long as Ermaline isn't around to distract the judges, I think Jailissa's got a real shot at that crown.”
Of course, the mention of Jailissa made me think again about the prospect of her with Joe. An involuntary shiver caused my shoulders to twitch. El noticed.
“What's wrong? Is the AC too cold?” She reached out to adjust the temperature in the car.
“No.” I intercepted her hand. “I was just thinking about Jailissa and Joe.”
“Joe?” she asked me.
“The plant manager?”
“You know him?”
“ Of him…yes. Tony's had a couple of run-ins with him about getting access to the plant to review where they have our information session notices posted.” She laughed bitterly. “I mean, if they have our notices posted.”
“That sounds about right.”
“What about Joe and Jailissa?”
I shook my head. “It's pretty creepy. Joe has lusted after Jailissa since she's been in pedal pushers. But tonight, I heard T-Bomb ask Luanne if it was true that they were dating.”
El sounded as surprised as I felt. “You're kidding? Isn't there a huge age difference between them?”
“You might say that. Joe is in his forties—Jailissa is barely seventeen.”
“Oh my god. This place is close to Kentucky in more ways than one, isn't it?”
“If you think that's bad, wait'll tomorrow when you get a load of Kenny Purvis and the hoppers.”
El looked confused. “Is that a local band?”
I burst out laughing.
“Let me guess…that's not a band?”
“Not so much. Kenny is Ermaline's estranged husband—and a charismatic preacher. He runs The House of Praise, and at last count, he had an entourage of about a dozen doe-eyed followers, all with babies under the age of two.”
“Oh, no. So he's kind of like Princeton's version of Warren Jeffs?”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
“Hey, if you ask me, she's well rid of him. Doc Baker might not look like much of a catch, but he's a good man, and I think he really loves her.”
“In the last analysis, that's all that really matters…isn't it?”
“I've always thought so.”
El reached out and took hold of my hand. “Me, too.”
We rode along in silence for a minute or two. It was just starting to get dark, and the last rays of sunlight were casting long shadows across the county road.
“We seem to spend a lot of time together in the dark,” I remarked.
“That's true,” El replied. “Do you regret that?”
I squeezed her hand. “Not at all. We seem to do pretty well in reduced light.”
“Also true. But you know, tomorrow might give us a chance to see how we do in broad daylight.”
I thought about that. Why not? It wasn't like I could be any more tarred with the guilt-by-association brush than I already had been. It was clear that my “career” at OTI was going down the tubes with or without any complicity on my part—so why not go ahead and embrace the small amount of time El and I had left to spend together?
“Are you asking me out?”
El nodded. “I can't think of a better or more public venue than the most celebrated swine-eating festival in the Western hemisphere.”
“Our appearance in broad daylight would probably turn some heads.”
“You mean more than we managed to turn last night?” She glanced over at me. “But if you'd rather not risk it, I certainly would understand.”
I thought for the zillionth time about Don K.'s unopened letter.
“I want to share something with you,” I said.
El gave me an amused look. “I thought you'd already done that…several times, if memory serves.”
I blushed. “Something else.”
She frowned. “This sounds serious.”
I gave her fingers another small squeeze. “Don't worry. It's something about work.”
“Oh.” She sounded surprised. “Are you sure that's a good idea?”
I nodded. “I think I can trust you.”
“Well, I know you can. But it matters a lot to me to hear you say that.”
“It matters a lot to me to believe it.”
El sighed. “We're pretty strange bedfellows, aren't we?”
I thought about my encounter that morning with Misty Ann Marks, and how it reminded me of all the wrong turns I'd taken. El was about as different from Misty Ann as Paris was from Princeton. “No,” I said to her beautiful profile. “I don't think we're strange at all.”
El smiled as she slowed the SUV down to make the turn onto Grammy's road.
“Will you follow me home?” I asked.
“If you don't know by now that I'd follow you just about anyplace, I must be doing something wrong.”
Her words made me shiver again. But this time, the chills were caused by excitement, not trepidation.
Before I could respond to her observation, we were pulling into Grammy's driveway, and Fritz had bounded off the porch and was flying across the yard to greet us.
An hour later, we were standing in my kitchen, heating up a casserole that contained our combined body weights in some savory new chicken stew recipe that Grammy said she clipped from the back of the Bisquick box. She said it tasted like heaven on a drop biscuit. I knew better than to argue with her about taking it. She'd already embarrassed the stuffing out of me by observing that El and I both looked tired. My blushing at that remark didn't help. El just started laughing, and Grammy observed that she wasn't as old or as oblivious as everyone seemed to think she was.
We offered to pick her up and give her a ride to Albion tomorrow, but she said she had already accepted a ride with Doc and Ermaline. So we agreed to meet up with her at the lemon shake-up stand at noon. That would give us all plenty of time to eat and stroll around before the parade and the start of the day's marquis event: the Miss Pork Day competition.
El had opened a bottle of wine, and we took our glasses into the living room to sit and relax while we waited for our dinner to finish heating up. Fritz had already inhaled his bowl of kibble, and lay sprawled out on the floor at El's feet, happily chewing on a tennis ball. We were listening to Pandora again. It was Rosemary Clooney this time. I was giddy that El seemed to share my fondness for retro music. Most of my friends just thought I was a nerd with geriatric tastes.
“So.” El angled her body around on the sofa to face me. “You wanna tell me about whatever it is that's going on at work?”
I sighed. This was as good a time as any. I got up and walked over to my desk so I could pick up the fat envelope from Don K. I thumped it against my palm a few times before walking back to the sofa to join El. I handed it to her.
“What's this?” she asked. She took the envelope from me.
“I think it's what you'd call a bribe.”
She raised an eyebrow and turned it over. “It's unopened.”
She lowered the letter to her lap. “You haven't looked at this?”
“When did you get it?”
“Yesterday? You mean, before the fish fry?”
“Why haven't you opened it?”
“You aren't curious about what's inside?”
“Not really. I think I know what it contains.”
“And that is?”
I sighed. “Don K.'s flimsy attempt to buy my ‘loyalty,' and entice me to enlist in his union-busting army.”
“You talked to him?”
I nodded. “He summoned me to his lair near the end of my shift yesterday.”
“Really?” El sounded impressed. “He must think you hold some sway with the rank and file in his company.”
“In a perverse way, this is pretty flattering for you,” she observed.
“Flattering? I don't know…it kind of makes me feel cheap.”
I waved a hand. “Oh, come on, El. He can't hold me in very high regard if he thinks he can buy me off with some sleight of hand and a token promotion.”
She seemed to think about that. “Do you care about his regard?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why are you offended?”
I knew my frustration was starting to show, but I was having a hard time controlling it. “Maybe because, against all reason, I wanted to believe that things would change when OTI took over.”
“Maybe they will.”
I looked at her. “Whose side are you on?”
“Yours. Of course.”
“God.” I raised a hand to my forehead. “I don't know what to make of any of this. It all used to be so simple—now it's just…complicated. I don't know which end is up any more.”
“That's easy, Friday Jill. What's ‘up' is the same end that's always been up. You just need to regain your equilibrium so you can recognize it again.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you need to consider this offer and make the best decision you can—for you.”
“What about the union?”
“What about it?”
I shook my head. “Wouldn't you say that getting a union at OTI is what's best for me?”
“For you? Not necessarily. For people like T-Bomb and Luanne—definitely.”
“I don't follow your reasoning.”
She sighed. “Unions can do a lot of good for people who need help and protection—for people who don't have a voice. Or for people who have a voice, but don't know the best ways to make use of it. Collective bargaining can be the only hope many workers have to gain living wages and better access to things like health care and the protections of family leave. And I'm talking about large classes of people who, through twists of fate or the predilections of biology and geography, have narrower paths and fewer options open to them than college graduates like you. You choose to work at OTI, but you have other alternatives and better choices available if ever you decide to walk away. Therefore, you don't necessarily need or benefit from the things a union has to offer. So it's possible that a union can solve problems for many, and create them for others. Does that make sense?”
I sat staring at her for so long she finally snapped her fingers in front of my face.
“Hello? Did I lose you?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No. I'm just mesmerized by what you must have been like in front of a classroom.”
El laughed. “Don't be. It's not rocket science.”
“I'm not sure I agree with that.” I pointed at the letter. “Wanna open it?”
She held it up. “You want me to do the honors?”
“Okay.” She turned it over and broke the seal. “Let's see Mephistopheles has prepared for you.”
She pulled out two sheets of paper. One was noticeably shorter than the other. She held it up and examined it. Her eyes grew wide.
“This is a check from Krylon Motors for ten thousand dollars,” she explained. “Made out to you.”
I took it from her. “You're kidding?”
“Not so much,” she said.
I poured over the check while El quickly read through the letter.
“Well,” she said, passing it over to me. “It's pretty textbook. There are no direct references to any ‘agreement' that you will support their efforts to keep the UAW out—but it's clear that the promised promotion to management and the enclosed ‘signing bonus' are rewards for your demonstrations of company loyalty.”
I was still looking at the check.
“Friday Jill?” El asked. “Are you considering his offer?”
I looked up at her. “No. But I was considering how many truck paint jobs ten thousand dollars would pay for.”
El laughed out loud. “I think those might be mutually exclusive.”
I handed the check and the letter back to her. “I think you're right.”
She took them from me, and refolded them before placing them back inside the envelope. “So what now?” she asked.
The oven timer dinged.
I smiled at her. “Now we eat Grammy's Bisquick creation, then try to find new ways to keep each other awake all night.”
She smiled back at me. “Is that an invitation?”
“Nope.” I took hold of her hand and tugged her forward for a kiss. “It's a promise.”
To Be Continued…
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