By: Bob Kalkreuter
Although I’ve only been gone a month, it seems like forever. Like something that happened when I was three or four.
Even as a kid, I’d been low key. I took things as they came. Tomorrow’s going to be better, I’d say. Until I had a string of tomorrows that weren’t better.
Now I’ve learned you have to duck occasionally.
It started when my girlfriend dumped me for a used car salesman. Can you imagine? How do you come in second to a used car salesman? Later I found out I didn’t come in second at all, but fourth or fifth.
That explained a lot, but it didn’t make me feel better.
Two days later I was fired from my job as a valet in a parking lot. At first I was afraid they’d traced some of the iPods and cameras I’d stolen from the cars, but no, somebody bought the damn place to put up a strip club. I’d only been a casualty of progress.
Sure, I was glad I hadn’t been caught, but I’d lost a paycheck. I’d also been supplementing my income by breaking into houses, and recently had several close calls. It was like the cops had me on speed dial. Every time I went out, they were somewhere nearby. Yet, without a day job, I couldn’t afford to lay low.
For weeks I was a nervous wreck, constantly looking over my shoulder, afraid to do anything, even spit on the sidewalk. Talk about being ready to end a losing streak.
I’m a big believer in luck, but sometimes luck needs a boost. So I decided to put some distance between me and my bad luck, as if bad luck was something you can leave behind, like road kill. But what did I have to lose? It was better than getting nabbed.
Getting into my car, I let the asphalt reset my life.
“Hey!” said Leila, the first time I saw her. She had loose blonde hair and the brightest smile I’d ever seen without being drunk.
She was a waitress in a seedy cafe called The Cedar Springs Palace. On the outside, the paint was peeling and a gutter dangled down, unattached. Inside, the Formica countertop was buckled and the wall paneling stained and pocked with holes that looked like it had been decorated by a .22 caliber paintbrush.
I figured the Palace must have been named by somebody with a sense of humor. Or eyesight like Mr. Magoo.
But that night I didn’t care. I was tired and hungry, and Cedar Springs was somewhere between don’t-want-to-be, Florida, and anywhere else. I was on the road to a new life and I was happy.
I’d been driving for hours and by the time it was eight-thirty, I was seriously lost. It seemed to me I’d been passing the same trees for hours, over and over. So when I saw lights up ahead, I stopped.
“What can I get you?” asked Leila.
She’d probably been expecting more than “Uhhh, ” from me.
“We’re fresh out of that,” she said, smiling even broader.
“Guess I need more time,” I said finally, hoping my voice didn’t crack.
“Take all you want,” she said, lifting the menu from my hands and turning it right-side-up. “But it works better this way.”
I wasn’t deterred. By the time I’d finished supper, I was the last customer, and she sat at the counter crossing and re-crossing her long, silky legs, waiting for me to finish my third piece of soggy pie. When you think about it, not much incentive for me to hurry.
Sitting there, she looked like a doll in her short skirt and soiled apron. I remember how my sister used to play with dolls when she was little, dressing them, undressing them. Kind of the way I felt about Leila.
Over the years I’ve lived in so many towns I can’t give you half the names. That’s what happens when people frown on the way you make a living. In my world, staying one step ahead of the law is more than a saying. Sometimes it’s an exact measurement. Twice I’d gone out the back door as the cops came in the front.
From the first, I had no intention of staying in Cedar Springs. Not permanently anyway. But then, we’ve all got to be somewhere, and I didn’t see any reason to leave right away, particularly with my stomach churning from greasy food and the sight of Leila’s naked thighs.
“There a motel around here?” I asked her, dropping a big tip on the table. “It’s too late to drive on tonight.”
“About a mile down the road,” she said, smiling again. “That way.”
Cedar Springs was a small town, way too small for somebody in my line of work. Burglars need a steady supply of merchandize and they need anonymity. Small towns don’t have either one. After all, doesn’t a salesman work where he can make the most sales?
But just because a town is small doesn’t mean it’s of no account. It means you go through the inventory quicker.
So what the hell, I figured. I’d treat Cedar Springs like a vacation. It was like taking a Caribbean cruise, and I could leave at any time, without swimming.
Besides, Leila wasn’t in the Caribbean.
The next day I slept late and didn’t get to the Palace until lunch. Leila wasn’t there. By supper the place was almost full. Leila must’ve been an acrobat to keep from stepping on guy’s tongues on the unmopped linoleum floor. So what made me think I had a chance with her? At first, nothing.
I ate there twice more. Leila was friendly, but cool. All we swapped were first names. I was sick of the food, if you want to call it that. But not of Leila.
As far as I could tell, the Palace was the same every day. The customers were the same. They even sat in the same seats. The bald guy in bleach-stained overalls by the front door, the old couple with matching gold teeth by the side window. Even the dirt on the floor was the same. It was like watching tv re-runs.
At least it was the same until Saturday night, when I noticed two hairy men who looked like castaways from a Neanderthal clan reunion.
“Hey Leila! My steak ready yet?” one of them shouted.
She flinched. “Hold on to your pants, Clyde. The cook’s outside, chasing away the buzzards.”
They laughed. Clearly, they were drunk.
And just as clearly she was annoyed. But not as annoyed as she was later, when she left to get into her car. I followed her out, figuring to… well, I don’t know what I figured. I may be sneaky, but I’m not stupid or mean. I’m certainly not a stalker. I’m just a guy who wants to get along. I only wanted to ask her on a date without the whole damn country listening in.
So I was there when she found the nail in her car tire.
Now before you jump to conclusions, I didn’t do it. Honest. Sure, I was glad it happened, and I wish I’d have thought of it, but cross my heart and hope to… well, maybe not that, but you get the picture. I don’t know how the nail got there.
“Damn!” she said, standing arms akimbo. I must have looked like she’d called my name. “Sorry,” she said.
“I’ve got a flat,” she said, pointing at the tire, as if I didn’t know where to look for a flat.
“I can change it for you,” I said.
Then I heard a deep bass voice saying: “You okay?” I hoped it wasn’t hers.
It wasn’t. Coming out of the cafe were the Neanderthals. They glared at me, already on my knees as if I was trying to cop a feel from her front tire.
“Hey,” she chirped, waving in that little girl way that melted me right down to the ground, even if I hadn’t already been there.
“What’s going on, Leila?”
They were studying me like a piece of spoiled meat.
“It’s okay, guys. I’ve got a flat and John here is helping me change the tire. Isn’t that sweet?” She giggled and I melted a little more.
That’s when I regretted not telling her that my real name was Brad. But a guy’s got to place it safe, you know. And now was not the time to come clean.
They moved closer, looking like they wanted a little after-supper exercise.
“He’s my cousin from Arkansas,” she said, touching my shoulder.
“Uh huh. Momma’s baby sister’s boy.”
“I didn’t know your momma had a sister.”
“Half sister. From Arkansas.”
“Yeah. His momma died last month and he stopped by to find me.”
“Well,” said the deep voice. “That’s too bad. Were you close?”
“Not too close,” she said.
Even to me this sounded a little weak, but they didn’t seem to pick up on it. I guess there was a reason Neanderthals had to chase their supper with sticks.
Nevertheless, I was grateful.
“Well,” said the deep voice. “You know where we are.”
“They live down the road from me,” she told me after they rode away in a truck that was all rust and muddy wheels.
“In a cave?” I asked.
The passenger leaned out to eye us several times before they disappeared into the darkness and dust.
Leila’s laugh was infectious. From where I sat, her legs looked clean and sleek. “They worry about me,” she said. “Clyde’s a jerk, but Toby, he’s sweet.”
“Not the word that struck me,” I said. “But I’m glad it’s all that struck me.”
“You’re funny,” she said.
As they say, the rest is history. Although, that’s really a stupid saying. The first part’s history, too, isn’t it? Just older and different and usually less fun.
Generally I’m not good with pretty girls. Some of them give me the cold shoulder, others just run off with used car salesmen.
So Leila, she was uncharted territory.
We met for supper on Tuesday. She said she had a craving for Chinese, so we drove two towns over to find a restaurant. That was okay with me. After climbing into my car, she wiggled herself into place, and the whole way over I smelled her fruity perfume and listened to her non-stop chatter. She wore a short skirt and kept switching her legs around. The trip went by too fast. Good thing we didn’t pass any cops, with me driving all over the road.
Leila ate Mu Shu Pork. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“Florida,” I said, which was true.
“Where in Florida?”
“Miami,” I said, which wasn’t.
“You don’t talk much,” she said.
“I’d rather listen to you,” I said. And it was the only honest thing I’d said all night. I didn’t like spill-your-guts conversations. In fact, I wasn’t a fan of conversations at all. Talk long enough and you’ll say something you shouldn’t. Well, okay, talk at all and you’ll eventually give away something.
She told me about her dad and three brothers, who all worked in a saw mill, and she told me about her momma, who’d died when she was thirteen.
I ate my some kind of chicken and tried to look interested. “They should have called this the Dry and Rubbery Surprise,” I said.
It was looking like she was surrounded by a testosterone-fueled fence. But I’ve scaled more than one fence in my time. For more than one reason.
“What do you do? For a living?” she asked, wiping hoison sauce from the side of her mouth.
“I‘m in business for myself,” I said, trying to tiptoe through the middle of the truth without getting any of it on me. “A middleman.”
“A middleman? What’s that?”
“I find antiques for people.”
“Are antiques old?” she asked.
“They’re supposed to be.”
“Most everything around here is junk.”
“You’d be surprised what people will buy,” I said. “If the price is right.”
When we got outside, the night air was cool, and I could hear the bugs chirping and buzzing or doing whatever they do to make noise.
“Where’s your family?” she asked, getting into my car. “Are they in Florida?”
“I’m an orphan,” I said, wondering what my mother would say about that. I started the engine and floored the accelerator. Leila sank back against the seat and looked straight ahead.
I’m not one to beat around the bush, unless there’s something better on the other side, so I asked her to my motel room. “For a nightcap,” I said.
“What’s a nightcap?”
“A shot of Old Granddad.”
For a moment she stared at me. “I don’t drink,” she said. “Besides, if I come home smelling like booze my husband will kill me.”
Whoa… I thought. Where did that come from? There were no rings on her fingers, now or before.
But not to be outflanked, I said: “Then let’s stop by the store and pick up some grape juice.”
She turned that down too, flashing one of those smiles that turned my gut into a spoonful of mashed potatoes. I drove on, waiting for her to continue the chatter she’d started on the way over, but she was mostly silent. Once, at a stop light in the next town, she played with the hem of her short skirt. When the light changed, she said: “It’s green. We can go.”
She’d left her car in the parking lot of the restaurant and before getting out she leaned across the seat and kissed me. Slowly, using her tongue. My head spun.
“You going to be in town long?” she asked.
“I wasn’t thinking about leaving. Not just yet, anyway,” I said.
“That’s a shame,” she said.
“It is? Um, I… well, uh, why’s that?”
You’d think I’d have figured out the pattern by this time.
She leaned so close I could smell the Mu Shu Pork. Again.
“I’m leaving my husband, but I don’t have a way out of town. Can you help me?”
Now, as I said, I’m a pretty low key guy. I take things as they come. No questions asked. But this one got me right between the eyes. Wham!
“Jesus,” I said.
“Is that yes or no?”
It was like Santa Claus asking me if I wanted a Lamborghini for Christmas. “I’d say it’s more like hell yes,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “Thank you. Can you pick me up at work tomorrow? I need to get a few things at the house before we head out.”
“What about your car?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s daddy’s car. I can’t take it.”
By Wednesday night, I was a wreck. Me, the slickest of the slick. The burglar cats came to for tips on how to creep around in the dark.
There was very little at stake in my break-ins. Mostly some jewelry, a little money, maybe a few pieces of silverware. Anything I could move right away. Once I rented a truck to clean out a room full of antiques. But really, I never stole anything I couldn’t live without. Nothing I couldn’t cut and run and leave behind, if something went wrong.
For me, it was safety first.
Until now. This time, I wanted Leila. And cut and run wasn’t an option.
“He’s at work tonight,” she said when we climbed into my car.
Too bad I didn’t ask her where he worked.
We ended up in a subdivision checker-boarded with houses and close cropped lawns. At the entrance stood a pair of huge oaks that might have been there when Hernando de Sota passed through on his way to the Mississippi.
Her house was the last one, at the back of the subdivision. It was dark. Next door were five or six cars, all parked on the lawn, the street, the driveway. Music and loud, slurred voices pulsed through the walls. Every window was lit.
Across the street a couple sat swinging on the porch, outlined against the smoking light of bug lanterns.
Already, I’d loaded my clothes into the back of car and I wasn’t sure how much room I’d have left.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Right here,” she said, pointing to the house.
Maybe she thought I was a serious dumb ass, since we were already sitting in front of her house. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to put any ideas into her head.
“When we leave here, where are we going?”
“Far, far away,” she said, looking off into the darkness, as if she could see it from the front yard. We got out.
Leila wore a pair of tight jeans with little squiggly designs on her back pockets. Perhaps I should have figured something was amiss when she said she’d lost her key. But with those squiggly designs prancing around in front of me, I wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Well, how do you propose we get inside?” I asked.
Can you imagine? Me, asking such a stupid question? Or even thinking it was a problem. But then it didn’t dawn on me…
“Maybe a window’s open,” she said.
Of course, everything was closed and locked.
“Is there a security system?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
She shrugged. So when she smiled again, I hesitated. There are just so many times you can get sucker punched.
“Do you really live here?” I asked.
“I used to,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means the son-of-a-bitch stole the jewelry my momma left me.”
I jimmied the rear door and stood back to let her to enter. “You know where it is, right?” I said.
“Not really,” she said.
We’d only been inside five minutes when two sheriff’s cars swung in behind my Ford Fiesta, lights spinning. Three men leaped out. The Neanderthals and a string bean kid with a cap two sizes too big for his head. All of them in uniform, running up the sidewalk with badges that looked like they’d come from Cracker Jax boxes.
But the shotguns they carried, they looked plenty real.
“Damn!” I said to Leila. “What’s this?”
“Clyde,” she said, pouting.
She never told me Clyde was the sheriff. Or that she’d shacked up with him for eight months. And the thing about being married, well, that was a lie.
Sometimes you can’t trust anybody!
Now, I’m sitting here in a cell with two rummies and a moron who passed a bad check to the judge’s wife at a yard sale.
I don’t know what happened to Leila, but I suspect that her 1000 watt smile and long, silky legs are doing her more good than the stolen cameras they found in my trunk.
Still, I believe in luck. My momma used to tell me we were born with the same amount of good and bad luck, like a sack of peanuts. And every time we take out a peanut, the odds shift one way or the other.
The way I figure it, there’s a lot more good luck left in my sack now, and when I get out, I’m going to be set for life.
I wonder if Leila will still be in Cedar Springs.
Bob Kalkreuter has forty-seven stories published in magazines such as Underground Voices, Bartleby Snopes, Edgepiece, Writes For All, The Stone Hobo, Eunoia Review, Solecisms, Whitewash Dreams, and eFiction. Two of his stories were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. One story was awarded the Herman Swafford Prize from Potpourri Magazine.Bob has two sons and currently live in northeast Georgia with three freeloading cats.