"Girl with the hot rod heart tonight
(Keep runnin')
With the hot rod hearts
Out on the boulevard tonight"

Robbie Dupree - "Hot Rod Hearts"



                           Joy

Friday, July 15, 1988
Richburg Road
9:38 PM



Flynn and I were in my black ’79 Pontiac Trans Am, heading home from a back woods two lane meet and run down in Purvis, and we were hauling ass along Highway 11 north which was itself a rough, old county two lane full of bad pavement and lots of twisties.  The T-tops were off, stored in their protective covers in the trunk, the windows were rolled down, the stars were out, it was humid, the Kenwood was pouring out Heretic’s “Impulse” from the Metal Massacre VI cassette and I was sipping warm Pepsi from a glass bottle.  Flynn was smoking a Winston from a pack with only a couple of cigarettes left and sipping whiskey from his almost empty flask meaning that we would be making a smoke and whiskey run sooner than later.  Other than that, life was good and the night was still young, two things that were decidedly in the favor of a pair of high speed hooligans like we were.

“I’m hungrier than an Ethiopian.” Flynn growled, blowing smoke out his nostrils like a dragon with a third lung.

“Yeah, I could go for something myself.”

“IHOP.” Flynn said.

“Yeah?  Hell.  Why not?” I answered, even though Flynn hadn’t really asked.

It was no secret between us that Flynn had taken a soft spot to Margaret, one of the older waitresses that worked at IHOP and one that seemed to serve us more often than not whenever we ate there.   Flynn had met Margaret while I was away at Hinds and something between them had just hit off.   Lately I’d seen Flynn’s ’69 GTO parked at IHOP on more than a few occasions when I cruised by that way and I know it wasn’t the food that was bringing him back night after night, especially around closing time.  Hell, if Flynn was jackhammering an IHOP waitress on a regular basis then I had no problem with that … in fact, I was happy for him to have someone, especially after all that he’d been through in his life.  Margaret wasn’t hard on the eyes for a chain smoking, career waitress who was in her late forties and hadn’t done anything but wait tables all of her life.  That’s a hard life in and of itself and it usually takes its toll sooner or later; in this case it looked to be later for Margaret as she still had most of her youthful appearance and a figure of a woman half her age.  At least she was in better looking shape than Flynn was most days so while I was happy that Flynn was getting some I kind of felt sorry for Margaret that it was Flynn she was getting it from … and it was comments like that which usually got me punched in the arm by Flynn.

Hard.

Bruise hard.

When he could catch me.

Which wasn't often because I was pretty quick on my feet.

I steered the Pontiac off of Highway 11 onto Sullivan Kilrain road, sending the Trans Am roaring down the two lane road at a way better than legal clip.  Sullivan Kilrain road was an long winding two lane, a country road overgrown on each side by pine trees and wild vegetation, a real serpentine stretch of old, tired, cracked asphalt that you could have a lot of fun on putting the TA through all the twisties and tighties at speed.

“Scenic route?” Flynn asked.

I shrugged ... not really sure why I had turned off like I had other than I hadn't been down this road in a while and I was just kind of wanting to take this road again.  Sullivan Kilrain road eventually turned into Richburg Hill road which dumped off onto 40th extension which dumped into Lincoln Road which dumped into South 28th which took us almost all the way to IHOP on Hardy Street so …  Yeah, it was the scenic route but it was also the most direct route to IHOP, at least in my book and I was the one who was belted in the driver’s seat tonight spinning the steering wheel.

And Sullivan Kilrain road was a lot of fun to drive on, especially at night, unless a deer jumped out in front of you and tore the front of your car off then it wasn't a lot of fun.

I was enjoying the dull roar of the 403cid V8 pulling duty under the hood, the hiss of the Rochester Quadrajet four barrel carburetor through the open shaker hood scoop and the loud caress of the warm night wind whipping at me through the open topped Pontiac.  As the quad high beam Halogen headlights cut through the late night darkness, the road under me became a long winding, gray mottled, black scar patched snake tattooed in alternating yellow lines down the middle and occasional white lines on the side.  The road was apparently maintained in an ad hoc fashion with no rhyme or reason to one section or the other.

Some sections were good, other sections weren’t, and some were just bone jarring, kidney bruising, suspension wrecking bad.  Patches of fresh asphalt were applied like a doctor using Band-Aids to stop the bleeding of a victim who had been hit by buckshot at long range.  The road was old, mottled and rocky ... the WS6 suspension of the TA didn't like it very much and the TA showed its displeasure in the quality of the road surface by constantly reminding me of how bad the road was through the vibration carried through the driver's seat and floor boards.  I just gritted my teeth and accepted it ... the TA was hell on curves but on rough roads it drove and rode like a Sherman tank and that was the price you paid for having the underpinnings that I had on a car that could take any curve around at twice the listed speed limit posted.

It was 8:38pm by the green display on the Kenwood stereo in the dash and Fate, fickle as always, had already made our evening plans up well in advance for Flynn and me whether we liked it or not.  My only gripe in this arrangement is that I really would have liked to have known what Fate had planned for us before she sprang it on us but then that would have taken the fun out of most of the good times that Flynn and I seemed to share when we were out raising hell together.  

We had just passed the trailer park on the right on Richburg Hill Road and I could see the big curve up ahead arcing off to the right.  The speedometer needle was held steady at 80 miles an hour and, according to Fate's fickle will, this is how the next three minutes of our lives played out …

 

The ’79 black and gold Trans Am swept around the sharp curve and my foot never let off the gas … didn’t have to with the WS6 underpinnings of the TA and the big, fat and sticky Firestone rubber that she wore on all four corners on 15x8 "snowflake" aluminum wheels.  The Pontiac was so sure footed that I could easily take curves at twice their rated limit and I could do it one handed which is exactly what I was doing right then.   My half-finger gloved left hand was on the thick padded Formula steering wheel and my half-finger gloved right hand was resting on the console mounted gear shift, the top mounted shifter button slightly depressed, unlocked, and ready to downshift the three speed THM350 automatic from Drive to Super to move the engine speed higher for extra power or extra braking if need be.

And there she was just walking down the middle of the dark two lane ...

Flynn had been looking out the passenger side so he was completely oblivious to what I had seen suddenly appear in the high beam headlights. 

She wore a tan cowboy hat, black t-shirt and blue jeans shoved down into dark boots.  She had what looked like a guitar and a large dark tan purse cross slung over her left shoulder.  She had her thumb in her pocket, her head down, and she had a denim jacket draped in the crook of her left arm as she walked.  She must have heard the ’79 TA bearing down on her because she stopped in the middle of the road, raised her head, lifted the rim of her hat to get a better look and stared at the rapidly approaching Pontiac.  The high beams and quad headlights of the Pontiac illuminated her fully as my heart jumped to fast idle.  

I gripped the steering wheel and the shifter tighter.

“Fuck!” I said out loud and that was all the time I had to say for anything because the world just went and got a whole lot busy right then. 

I grabbed the center console mounted gear shifter and dropped the THM350 three speed automatic transmission from Drive down into Super.  The 403 cubic inch V8 under the hood bucked on its mounts and growled loudly as the tach needle jumped a thousand RPM higher on the face of the gage.  My left foot went to the brake pedal and started to press down steadily, trying to bleed off 80 miles an hour worth of speed as fast as I could without losing control and sliding us sideways off the curve or worse … flipping us around and going off the road backwards, uncontrolled, at speed, into a bunch of pine trees which I can promise you were not going to move out of our way.

I felt the ’79 Pontiac Trans Am start to slow hard, the nose dipping and the tail lifting, as we entered the curve.  If I didn’t manage to pull this off then the Pontiac would have a new hood ornament … the long legged brunette kind.  We powered through the sharp curve with the engine growling loudly as we continued to decelerate.  I blasphemed again as the woman turned sideways in the middle of the road and took two quick steps backwards into the oncoming lane of traffic, watching us fly past her with less than three feet separating her from getting clipped by my driver’s side mirror.  Her cowboy hat blew off of her head in our wake letting her long brunette hair blow softly in our passage.

She had stood there close enough that I could have reached out and touched her if I had wanted to and she had watched us roar past her.   We were thunder and light and screaming rubber and wailing engine.

The Pontiac cleared the curve almost on the right edge of the shoulder of the road.  I had pulled the Pontiac down into the curve, hard and tight, so hard and tight that the right side tires just barely started to kiss gravel on the shoulder.  The seat belt had locked solid on the sudden deceleration; the TA was hugging me tight as my left foot went all the way to the floor on the brake pedal, leg locking straight.

The four wheel power disc brakes reached the point of lock up.

The factory aluminum snowflake wheels stopped spinning, locking hard, and the heavy Pontiac slid out of the curve on the other side as all four tires fought for traction and battled friction on the pavement, protesting, leaving dark marks of rubber on the asphalt and plenty of tire smoke behind.  The Trans Am finally came to a tire blistering, rubber screaming stop on the far side of the curve, idling loudly, rocking once on its suspension and slewed partly sideways in the middle of the right lane, brake lights lit bright red.

A thick veil of burnt rubber smoke slowly wafted around us, past us, and off into the night illuminated by the four horizontal shafts of bright light from the Pontiac’s high beam halogens.  The smell was caustic and wholly familiar to my nostrils.  I slapped the dual gate factory gear shifter back up from Super into Drive and then into Neutral … one slow ratchet stop at the time.

Click.

Stop.

Click.

Stop.

I felt the TA go slack as the drive train dropped into neutral, taking the power load off of the chassis and frame.  Flynn recovered from the wild ride, using his hand to flick his long salt and pepper hair back out of his face as he turned to me, confusion mixed with anger flashing on his face.

“And just what the fucking hell was all that bunch of monkey shines for?!” he asked loudly, confused, trying to figure out what was happening.

I looked in the rear view mirror at the woman we had just almost run over.

“Her.” I said flatly.

“Huh?” Flynn asked, quickly turning his head to look out the passenger side and then turned in his seat to look over his left shoulder behind us.

“Who?”

“Her.” I said flatly, jerking a gloved right thumb back over my right shoulder in the direction behind us.

“What the …?"

"Yeah." I said.

"Her?" Flynn asked.

"Yeah." I said, again.

"Where the hell did she come from?!” Flynn asked, finally spotting who I was talking about.

I shrugged my shoulders, thinking about just how close I'd come to smearing some strange woman across the nose, hood and front windshield of my TA.

“Hell if I know.  One second she wasn’t there, the next she was.”

“In the middle of the road?” Flynn asked, still staring at the woman.

“Hell, yes ... in the middle of the road!  She stepped out into the middle of the damn road in front of me!” I said flatly, finally feeling my heart start to slow down.

“Do you know her?” Flynn asked.

“Never seen her before.”

“Did you hit her?” he asked.

“Nope.”

“Good.” He said, taking a drink from his flask.

“Good?” I asked.

“Yeah, good.  We’re okay.  She’s okay.  I’m hungry.  Fuck her.  Let’s go.” He said, using both hands to pat the dash in front of him and gesture in a motion to indicate that we should be getting on our way and the sooner the better.

The woman was illuminated in the red glow of the brake lights, standing there two hundred or so feet behind the rear bumper of the Pontiac ... just standing in the middle of the oncoming lane of the road.  She turned looking off into the distance where the Pontiac had entered the curve then back towards us.  I saw her shrug her shoulders.  She walked over to where her cowboy hat had landed, picked it up, looked at it, dusted it off with her hand then put it back on her head, adjusting it as she started walking towards where we sat in the Pontiac.  She pulled her guitar strap tight along with her purse and took the denim jacket in her hands as she walked towards us.  Flynn, realizing that we weren’t moving, turned to look again at the woman behind us.  He stared at her as she walked towards us then he turned to look at me.  I shifted the TA from neutral up into reverse, looked over my right shoulder, his and my foreheads almost touching, then started slowly backing us up.  Flynn realized what I was doing and probably what I had in mind.

“Oh, no!  Dream on!  Dream the hell on!” Flynn said, looking from me to over his shoulder and then back to me.

The TA’s exhaust burbled and the rear differential whined as we slowly backed up.  Flynn and I were both turned around now, looking over our shoulders, out the curved glass rear window at the woman standing there in the middle of the road.

“Yeah, you can just dream the hell on because what you’re thinking isn’t going to happen.  We are not picking up another of your strays … not tonight …” Flynn said, his voice almost monotone.

“Let’s just see if she’s okay.” I said.

“Aw, damn, Shields!  This is not happening!” Flynn huffed but kept looking over his shoulder as I backed the Pontiac up.

"Maybe she needs help." I said.

"They always need help when you stop to ask them ..." Flynn muttered.

There came the sound of loose gravel being crunched under the tires of the Pontiac as I slowed the TA about twenty feet from her and dropped the transmission back into neutral.  Gravel crunched under her boots as she walked on the old asphalt and then she was there, standing beside us.  Flynn turned in his seat to look at her as she stood there beside the passenger side door, one hand on her hip, one hand on the strap of her guitar, looking at us expectantly and a concerned, maybe even angry look on her face.  I tapped the gear selector switch with my gloved hand.  There was an overall surreal feeling to the moment.

She was an Amazon, not fat, but tall and big boned, built more like a roller derby girl than a cheerleader.  I had been wrong about the T-shirt.  She wore a sleeveless shirt and had a large tattoo on her right arm.  Another tattoo peeked out just above where her shirt ended and her ample breasts began.  I’m sure she had others as well because the general rule was once you committed your body to that amount of ink you didn’t stop with just one or two.  Everything about her was decidedly feminine just a bit larger than what I was used to and stacked in an inviting way.  Her breasts stretched the material of her sleeveless black shirt.  Thirty-six?  Thirty-eight?  D cup at least.  As for height I’d say that she was an easy six feet tall, maybe six two and maybe one seventy-five, give or take.

Amazon.

A long curly haired brunette Amazon was now standing next to the TA, wearing her cowboy hat, with her denim jacket draped over her arm, her hand on her hip and a guitar and a big purse slung over her shoulder.  Even Flynn had to force himself to keep his mouth from spontaneously dropping open and saying something stupid because at that moment the look on the Amazon’s face said that she really wasn’t in the mood for any kind of sass, especially from two guys who almost just ran her over in an old black and gold Trans Am.  She looked like she could hurt you bad if she wanted to, if she was in the mood to hurt you and right then and there I was thinking she might just be in that kind of mood.

If her name turned out to be Candy or something like that I really wouldn’t be surprised and the first song that popped into my mind was “Candy’s going bad” by The Godz, itself a damn good cover of the older Golden Earring song.

Her long lashes.

Her eyes, heavy with makeup and that makeup wet with sadness.

But it was her eyes that really drew your attention ... 

She had witchy eyes, absolutely bewitching eyes, dark, haughty … unearthly eyes with long eyelashes to match … pair all of that with her long curly black hair and the effect was almost hypnotic.  She folded her arms across her chest, her denim jacket draped across her forearms yet her expression didn’t change.  Flynn looked at me expectantly but if he was thinking that I was going to change my mind, he was mistaken.  A shallow look of disbelief crossed his face as I shrugged my shoulders and nodded at her, motioning towards the back seat.

“No.” Flynn said flatly.

“Yes.” I said.

“No.  Not happening, man.” Flynn said, chuckling to himself.  “Just not happening.”

I looked at Flynn again.  He turned from me back to her, noticing both of our expressions were nearly the same.  It took him all of fifteen seconds to realize that he wasn’t going to win this one.

“Fine.” Flynn said at last, throwing his arms forward in frustration then stepping out of the TA and holding the door open for her.

“Fine!” he said again louder, for emphasis.

She took her purse and guitar off, pushed them into the back seat then crawled in and pulled the passenger seat back to lock.  She smelled like cigarettes, beer and the strong flowery kind of perfume that depended on intensity and an inexpensive price to both work and meet its target market niche.

Flynn angrily tapped out his next cigarette from his crumpled pack, cupped his hand as he lit up the Winston with his Zippo, took a deep puff and blew smoke out of his nostrils, shaking his head slowly in utter disbelief.  He slid back down into the Pontiac and shut the door with a slam, not even bothering with his seat belt.

“Got another smoke?” she asked from the backseat, her voice was deep and rough, sure and confident.

“Just.” Flynn said looking at his smokes.

“The kind of night that I’ve had … I could really use one of those.” She said.

Flynn paused for a second, regarded his crumpled up pack of Winstons then handed it back to her.  He didn’t let go of his pack as she took a cigarette from the three smokes remaining.  Flynn passed her back his Zippo lighter and I saw the flare of her lighting up there behind me, her features illuminated in the flash of the flame there under the brim of her cowboy hat.  Witchy, bewitching eyes that flicked up to stare at me.  She took a long pull on the Winston and handed the lighter back to him.

“Thanks.” She said, breathing out her smoke.

Flynn’s reply was a monosyllabic grunt but maybe there had been some common ground gained there. 

The woman in the back seat looked from me to Flynn and back again.  She held her cigarette in an almost guarded pose, knees up and turned sideways there in the backseat.  I sat there in the driver’s seat, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the gear selector, and my left foot still on the brake pedal.  I could still smell the caustic scent of hot brakes and friction heated rubber mixed with the smells that her presence had brought and now a pair of Winstons burning inside my Pontiac.  We all sat there in silence for a minute before she tipped her cowboy hat up and back then spoke.

“Thanks for stopping.” She said flatly, reaching her cigarette out the driver’s side behind me and tapping the ash off of it.

Her voice was feminine, but strongly so … nothing dainty about it.  I couldn’t help myself, I let go with a short, sharp laugh.  She looked at me, concerned at first then her expression became soft.  A few seconds later, she giggled then laughed too.  I whistled at the strangeness of the situation, looked her over once and turned back to face the road.  I dropped the gear selector back down from Neutral to Drive.  The powertrain of the Pontiac reengaged with a dull thud from the transmission and drive line to the ten bolt limited slip pumpkin in the back.

“So … Where are you guys headed?” she asked.

"Maybe you should have asked that before you just got in the car." I said.

"Maybe I should have." she said.

“We were going to IHOP.” Flynn said.

“Still are.” I added.

“Good.  I’m hungry.” She said flatly, apparently inviting herself along.

I looked at Flynn who looked from me back to her and then back to me.  He shrugged his shoulders, faced forward in his seat, took another deep drag and blew smoke out the passenger side.  It was his way of saying that not only had he accepted the situation that we were in but he that he was completely indifferent to it as well.  Flynn, having known me possibly the longest out of any of the people that I spent time with fully knew how my life was and how it could be … or rather how my life could become, at a moment’s chance.

“Okay.  Food it is.” I said, easing the rumbling TA on back up to speed. “But first we’ve got to stop for gas, whiskey and smokes.”

“Hallelujah.”  Flynn said sarcastically and he remained silent for the rest of the ride even though I could tell that he was fuming.

 

After a short detour to our favorite liquor store on South 27th for some more whiskey (Flynn topped his flask off in the parking lot from a fifth of Jack Daniels that he had bought inside) we all piled back into the TA and drove a few blocks over to the Junior Food Mart / Eagle’s Nest on Hardy Street (across from the Elam Arms dormitory) for smokes and gum.  I put ten bucks worth of premium in the TA while our passenger went inside.

The guitar slinging, purse carrying Amazon had gone on in to the store and Flynn stopped next to the pump to ask me if I wanted anything from inside.  I gave Flynn a five spot to buy the Amazon a pack of smokes with it, a lighter if she didn’t have one and that he could keep the change. He looked at the five dollar bill in his hand, then to me, then to the Amazon already inside the store, and then back to me.  His look said he understood what I was doing but that he just didn’t understand why.

“Sometimes life kicks you in the nuts.” I said.

“I don’t think she has any nuts for life to kick her in.” Flynn said flatly.

“Well, sometimes life can kick you in the girly parts as well and she looks like she’s been kicked, hard, in the girly parts.”

“And you think that buying her a pack of smokes is going to make it all better?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“It’s certainly not going to make it any worse.  Say you were having a bad time in life and someone bought you a pack of smokes.  Would it make you feel better?”

Flynn shrugged his shoulders this time.

“I mean, come on, man!  Did you see how she took that smoke off of you?  Sometimes we just need the little things.  Comfort stuff.  Keeps life worth living.”

“Spoils of war?” Flynn asked.

“You take what you can, fight your battles, pick up the pieces afterwards and maybe you get lucky, that sort of thing I guess.  That’s the way I see it.  It's the small stuff that makes life worth living, moment to moment, day to day.  She bummed a smoke off of you because she probably doesn't have a pack left to her name.  Get her a pack of smokes ... buy her a little bit of hope.” I said and went back to filling the Pontiac.

Flynn started to say something, thought about it then cocked his head and turned to walk towards the store.

 

Once everyone was back in the TA I drove us the quarter mile back down Hardy Street to IHOP right across from the University campus.  Margaret wasn’t working that night but Flynn had her number and after a quick phone call to her house she joined us fifteen minutes later.  I don’t think that I had ever seen Margaret in non-IHOP attire so it was a bit strange to see her in what I considered “regular people clothes.”  I had to give it to Flynn; Margaret could really fill out a pair of jeans and she really wasn’t hard on the eyes when she took the time to fix herself up, especially since she had to be as old as Flynn was.

The difference was that she actually tried to take care of herself and, when time permitted, Flynn as well, that is, when he would let her because Flynn could be one hell of a stubborn jackass about his health.  In fact, the longer I had known Flynn the rougher he had started to look.  I blamed the smoking and drinking and drugs for his decline but the truth was that Flynn looked a lot worse today than he had when I had first met him just a few short years ago.  I hoped that Margaret was going to turn that around … put a soft edge on some of that hard living, maybe finally give him something or someone to pull him out of his slow downward spiral that he had committed himself to.

Shelly, another IHOP waitress we were familiar with, recognized us and greeted us as soon as we all piled in the narrow entrance.  We took our usual booth back in the corner, in the smoking section and Shelly took our drink orders; sweet tea for me, Coke for the Amazon, and black coffee for Flynn and Margaret (with a liberal splash of whiskey from Flynn’s refilled flask after Shelly was gone).  Shelly left us to look over the menus even though I knew the menu by heart; Flynn and I had become regulars years before he had started to see Margaret mainly because a place like IHOP was the kind of place that catered to people like Flynn and I, especially late at night.  I closed my menu, put it down, leaned back and looked at the Amazon.  She was reading the menu, a small narrow space existed between the top of the menu and the brim of her cowboy hat and through that space I could see her eyes moving back and forth, reading the menu, glancing up at me and then back to reading the menu.

“Order what you want, I’m buying.” I said digging out five ones, a five and a ten then putting the rest back in my pocket … just some of the cash that I had won earlier that night at the meet and run down in Purvis.

She put her menu down, leaned back, got comfortable in the booth next to me, used a finger to raise the rim of her cowboy hat backwards and stared at me.

“Don’t think buying me some pancakes is going to let you get lucky tonight.” She said softly.

Flynn blew bubbles into his coffee as he chuckled at that comment and rocked in the booth.  Seeing a challenge was being made I immediately retorted.

“If you’re the kind of woman who puts out for an order of pancakes then I don’t think that I’m all that much interested in getting in your pants anytime soon … if at all.”

The Amazon made a haughty smile in turn and went back to looking at the menu.  She had a pretty face but it was her eyes which really gave her a witchy demeanor.  She would turn heads, especially if you had a few drinks onboard and I think that even Flynn could see that physical quality in her.  There was just something about her … something that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go, like walking through a spider web in the dark.

“So.  Are you two in the habit of picking up women walking down the middle of the road at night and taking them out to eat?”

“What are you doing picking up other women?” Margaret accused Flynn good naturedly and Flynn merely pointed a stabbing finger over at me, passing the blame fully back to its rightful source.

“I wouldn’t call it a habit.” I said.  “You’re the first woman with a guitar that I’ve picked up in that curve this week.” I said flatly.

“The first woman with a guitar this week?” she asked.

“Yeah.  The woman I picked up last night in that very same curve had a cello.  I tell you what, that thing was a real bitch to try and fit in the back seat because even if the T-tops hadn’t been off there is no way something like that was going in the trunk.”

Flynn stifled a laugh into a chortle and had to look away to keep his composure.  The Amazon looked at me, not sure if I was serious or not.

“A cello?” she asked.

“Yeah.” I said, playing it for all it was worth.  “Just once I wish you women would carry something … small.  Like a harmonica or a Ukulele.  It would make things a hell of a lot easier.”

She gave a nervous laugh on that and Flynn chuckled to himself.

“You know … something that I could put in the center console … something that I didn’t have to think about putting in the trunk of my TA or strapping it to the roof.”

“You’re serious?” the Amazon asked.

“No.” I said, smiling.

She smiled, realizing I was joking with her.

It was a pretty smile.

Her eyes were haunting.

She smelled of cigarettes, sweat and cheap perfume.

Shelly returned and after a bit of small talk with Margaret and prodding of the other three of us she took our food orders.  When she asked if the orders were going to be on one ticket or two, I said “two” and my passenger said “one.”  When I looked at her for clarification, she simply shrugged, offered another haughty smile and said “You offered, remember?”

“Yeah, I did.  Put it all on one ticket.”

“Even their tickets?” Shelly asked, pointing to Flynn and Margaret.

“Huh?” I asked, not sure what she meant.

Flynn grunted loudly for attention, arched his eyebrows twice, pursed his lips and blew me a mock kiss.

“If you buy me some pancakes I’ll let you get in my pants tonight.” He said.

Margaret, shocked at what he had just said, drew in a deep breath and play punched him in the arm. 

“You’d put out for a Pop-tart if you had a glass of whiskey to dunk it in.” I said as I wagged a finger at him in a no-no manner and everyone at the table laughed or giggled in some capacity, even Shelly.

“So … was that one ticket for all of you or two separate tickets?”

Flynn slicked his hair back and made mock puppy dog eyes at me.  I rolled my eyes at him and gave in.

“Yeah, might as well.  Put it all on one ticket.” I told the waitress who nodded and left.

“Appreciate that, chief.” Flynn said raising his cup of coffee splashed with whiskey in a toast to me.

“Your turn next time.”

“Next time.” Flynn said, chuckling, tapping out a cigarette in the ash tray and lighting up from his new pack of Winstons. 

He slid the pack and his Zippo lighter to the center of the table, tapped it twice in my passenger’s direction and she accepted, taking a cigarette out as well and firing it up with his lighter.  Soon our booth was wreathed in cigarette smoke from the two human chimneys, a fact that Margaret and I could have lived without but we weren't complaining.  Smoking wasn’t my thing but I understood some people had a need for it so I tolerated it even if most nights spent out with Flynn I went home reeking of Winstons and cigarette smoke.

My passenger sat with her back to the window, her long legs and boots pulled up into the booth barely giving me room to sit myself.  The toes of her boots were almost touching the side of my thigh.  She stared off into the rest of IHOP, glancing at the high ceiling, the décor and occasionally me.  Every now and then she took a long drag off of her cigarette and exhaled from the side of her lips away from me, up towards the ceiling.  I looked around as well.  The inside of this place always reminded me of some ski chalet in the Swiss Alps.  I don’t know why because I had never been to Switzerland or in a ski chalet but I could imagine that if I ever did that the inside of it would probably look pretty much like the inside of an IHOP for some strange reason.  I stared off as well, just letting my mind go vacant and waiting on my food … remembering the night, the street racing down in Purvis and trying to figure out what I was going to have to do in order to get rid of my passenger … this roller derby-esque Amazon that I'd almost run over an hour ago in my Trans Am.

How much was I going to be into her for before the night was over?  Already I was out pocket cash for her smokes and her food …  My thoughts turned back to the Amazon curled up on the bench next to me and I glanced at her, taking her in as she in turn stared off out into the restaurant.  I had picked her up because I felt sorry for almost running her over on a dark road, because the gentleman in me just didn’t want to leave an attractive woman like her walking alone in that part of the county and since I did stop and offer her a ride, I knew that I had to see this whole thing through to the end. 

While Flynn and Margaret were engaged in some half whispered conversation full of innuendos and quiet laughs the Amazon was quiet … contemplative … as she smoked her cigarette.  Her eyes always came back to me, staring holes in the side of my head.  She was quiet but her witchy eyes kept a wary watch on me.  Those long lashes batting every now and then were mesmerizing when we caught each other looking.

“Do you have a name?” I asked, not even bothering to look at her, just sipping on my sweet tea and slowly turning the ice filled Coke logo emblazoned glass in my hands.

“Maybe.” She said, with that same haughty smile as she blew out smoke from the side of her pursed lips then tapped her cigarette on the ash tray at the table.

“That’s a really pretty name and not very common.  Don't know many girls named "Maybe".” I said.

She did a little smirk at me.

“You got a name?  What do they call you?” she asked.

“Take your pick!  They call him lots of things, most of them not very nice.” Flynn interjected.

Margaret laughed and shook her head.

“You two definitely have chemistry.” The Amazon noted.

“They do!” Margaret affirmed.  “They’re usually the loudest group in here.”

“And the rowdiest.” I added.

"So ... you're regulars?" the Amazon asked.

"Several times a week." Margaret said.

"We're regulars ... going on a year and a half now." I said, nodding towards Flynn.

“Sometimes it gets embarrassing.” Margaret said.  “You don’t know what it’s like to work a shift when these two come in.  These two will get into some of the dumbest arguments and clear across the restaurant you can hear Flynn trying to win the argument by shouting cuss words and insults.”

“It works.” Flynn said.

“No, it just makes all the old people turn and stare at you like you’re retarded.” I said.

Flynn shrugged and took a long drink of his coffee.

Margaret smiled.

“I remember the first time I met Flynn.  It was late one shift, about like it is now.  I’d worked five hours on my feet and these two come in arguing.  They head back to this table here, right here, and I have to wait on them.  Coffee and sweet tea.  I bring them their drinks back and Flynn here pulls out his flask and pours whiskey in his coffee and that guy there …”

She pointed a finger at me across the table.

“Takes like ten packets of sugar there, tears them open and puts them all in his tea and starts stirring like he’s trying to kill the tea or something.  I mean, he was stabbing that tea with his straw and just grinding the sugar and ice in the cup.”

I nodded, remembering that night well.

“And then I told Flynn to go fuck himself.” I added.  “Rather loudly, if I care to remember.”

Margaret got this shocked look on her face but she nodded quickly.

“You did!  At first I thought you had said that to me but it was evident that you and Flynn were at each other that night and you had forgotten all about me after I brought you two your drinks so I just stepped back and let you two bash it out.”

“You walked away.  I thought you were going to get the manager and that we were going to get kicked out.”

“No, honey.  It was dead quiet that night and you two were some much needed entertainment.  Me and the girls and the cook stood over there near the kitchen and watched you two chew each other out.  And it wasn’t two minutes later that Flynn …”

I nodded and Flynn put his hand to his chin, remembering and smiling.  I snapped my fingers and nodded, shaking my head.

“Yeah.  Yeah!  We were arguing about Pontiac V8s and … and … oh, damn.  What was it that Flynn said …?”

“Said?” Margaret asked, incredulous.  “He didn’t just say it, no, he stood up, slammed his fist into the table top there and shouted it as loud as he could …”

“It’s a goddamn high compression D-port 400!”

I nodded and started laughing at the memory.  Flynn chuckled and shook his head.  Margaret laughed and shook her head, taking a swig of her whiskey laced coffee then holding the warm mug between her hands.

“And to this day I still don’t know what a high compression D-port 400 is or why God would want to damn it.”

Flynn lost it then and I leaned my head back in the cushion, closed my eyes and smiled.

Good times.

I opened my eyes and turned to look at the Amazon.  She was smiling ever so slightly and she batted her eyes at me.  Slowly, like a butterfly flicking its wings.

“What?” I asked her.

“Seriously.” The Amazon said.  “What’s your name?”

“Christopher.” I said.  “Like the patron saint of travelers.”

She thought about that for a second, turning it over in her head.

“Joy.” She said drinking her Coke through a straw held between two fingers and leaving lipstick behind on the straw when she put her glass down.  “As in aren’t you just a bundle of ...”

And that was that.

Christopher and Joy.

We knew each other’s name.

 

Shortly after ten Flynn and Margaret excused their selves and went back to his place, taking her old Ford LTD and leaving Joy and I alone at the IHOP; with Flynn gone that gave me an extra seat in the Pontiac and meant that if I had to take Joy home she wouldn’t have to ride sideways with her knees to her chest sitting in the back seat of the Trans Am, a place that had never been designed to accommodate someone of Joy’s build.  I’m not sure if it was Flynn or Margaret or both or the fact that Joy had suddenly found herself spending time around three complete strangers but once our little dinner meet had thinned down to just the two of us Joy seemed to visibly relax and became more willing to talk.  I didn’t bother to move to the other side of the table to give her more personal room and she didn’t bother to ask me to do so once that space was freed up.  We just sat there, together, like we had been since we got here, side by side on the same side of the booth.

Joy and I talked for about an hour and a half and from what I could gather her father had been some middle brass in the support echelons of the Air Force, her family had moved around a lot between air bases when she was growing up so she hadn’t really made any friends that lasted and she had a sister who was younger than her (about my age she said which made me wonder just how old she was).  Her mother had died of some pretty nasty breast cancer in 1979, she had graduated high school in 1982, she had left Pensacola with a guy her dad really didn’t like two months after that and she hadn’t been home since.  She didn’t talk to her father at all and she hadn’t talked to her sister in about three years.  The guy that she left Pensacola with got into some trouble with dealing drugs, got arrested in Birmingham and was doing a whole lot of time somewhere in Alabama.  She spent two years after that making her way west and now here she was, in Hattiesburg, kind of stuck and just taking it one day at a time, making it as best as she could.

When I asked her what she did for a living she told me that she worked as a hair stylist for a beauty shop down town.  Her car broke down three days ago and she didn’t have the money to get it fixed.  One of her friends at work had set her up with a friend of her boyfriend’s who said he could fix her car this weekend.  Well, this afternoon he had asked Joy out, saying he would come over to look at her car, get an idea of what it would take to fix it then get the parts tomorrow and fix it.  In the mean time, why didn’t they go out to a bar and have a drink or two, do a little dancing and just have a good time?  He had seemed nice enough so she agreed to go out with him since he was a friend of her friend’s boyfriend.

Big mistake.

The guy had tried to get her drunk at the bar but she wasn’t having any of that and when she had asked him to take her home he had taken her on some long drive in the country and gotten kind of aggressive with his wandering hands.  She had asked him to take her home but he had pulled over on the side of the road and was determined to have his way with her.  When he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, she had punched him in the balls as hard as she could right there on the bench seat of his pickup truck, twice, then beat on him until she felt better.  She had grabbed up her stuff and left him curled up in a moaning, whimpering fetal position there on the bench seat of his pickup and from what I could tell from her description of where it had happened she had left him hurting real bad somewhere there on the side of Sandy Run road.

Of course she didn’t know where she was so she had just started walking and thinking and fuming and cussing at how life sucked and she always wound up in those kind of situations with those kind of guys.  She had been walking for about twenty minutes, not really paying any attention to where she was going, lost in her thoughts about her life, her broken car, and the guy who just tried to force himself on her when she nearly got run over by a pair of guys hauling ass late at night down an old country two lane road in a black and gold Trans Am … which she thought was a pretty cool car … and here she was.

Here we were.

And that was her life story, pretty much, like you care, thanks for listening.

She seemed kind of bummed out after telling me all that so I tried to steer the conversation in another direction.

“Show me your ink.” I said, mainly because I was interested in her tattoo.

She looked confused at first then understood and nodded, turning slightly around to show me her right arm, flexing it there and turning it slowly so I could see the whole tattoo.  There was a red heart trimmed in gold there with a rose behind it.  The stem of the rose was actually a thorny vine that crept down around her arm and ended near her elbow.  A pair of butterflies, one blue and purple, the other yellow and blue, flew around the vine, chasing each other.  A banner across the rose was big enough to hold a pretty good sized name in it but was blank.

“Dean.” She said, pointing to the banner.  “I was going to get his name put there but I ran out of money and then he ran out on me so … you know, fuck him.  I’m not wearing his name on my arm.  You have to earn that.”

“Dean?  Was that the guy you left Pensacola with?”

Joy nodded.

“Kind of worked out then, didn’t it?”

She shrugged and ran her hand over the tattoo almost as if she were ashamed of it, almost as if she was trying to hide it.

“Guess I haven’t found anyone better to put their name there.” She said.

“There’s a fine line between a tattoo and a scar.” I muttered.

“Got a few of those as well.  Good ones.  Deep.”

“More on the inside than on the out?” I asked her.

"Yes ... an no." She said as she nodded.

“Got any more ink?”

“You sure are curious, aren’t you?” she asked, somewhat defensive.

“I’m interested.  I guess there’s a fine line between the two.”

“I guess there is.  Why do you want to see the rest of my ink?”

“I like art … and tattoos are just another type of art, a counter culture type but art nonetheless.  I like the original stuff.  I like to see what other people think up and what other people get to wear … as long as it’s original.  I hate the plain stuff.  If you’re going to get ink, go original.”

“Do you have any ink?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“No.  I’ve thought about getting ink before but just haven’t made up my mind to commit to that lifestyle.”

“Why not?”

“There’s good ink and bad ink out there and it’s kind of there to stay once you get it so you better make sure that what you get is what you want.  Choosing who puts your ink down is probably just as important as choosing what you want to ink.  There’s a lot of ink parlors around here because it’s a college town with a military base nearby but there are probably only about four of them that I’d let do anything to me.  Maybe not even that many come to think of it.”

Joy ran her hand over her arm and the tattoo found there.  I reached slowly out with my finger, moving towards her tattoo.  She didn’t put up a protest so I touched her ink, traced the vine and moved her arm where I could get a good look at the artwork.  It was quality work, she must have paid good money for it too and I doubt if it was local as I hadn’t seen this kind of talent on display around here.  It was really clear work, designed to last as far as ink was concerned.  I pulled my finger back from her tattoo.

“I figure if I ever get ink put down it’s going to be something worth putting ink there for, you know?  Ink isn’t fashion; it’s a statement, a commitment.  At least to me it is and that means it’s not something to be done without a lot of thought going into it.  If you’re going to get inked, make it count.  I just haven’t found anything that I wanted to carry around with me that long.  Nothing is permanent in life, at least not in mine … especially not in mine … so, why get ink when I’ve got nothing to get ink about?”

“I hadn’t thought about it like that.” She said.

“I probably think too much about stuff like that.” I said, softly laughing still at my situation.  “I guess what I’m trying to say is that if I ever get ink it’s going to be something that no one else has and it’s going to be put down to stay for a long time.  It’s got to be original and mean something and … I haven’t found that yet.”

“That’s probably why you don’t have any ink.” She said, smiling.

“Yet.” I added, shaking my head and taking a long drink of sweet tea.

“Yet.” She agreed, smiling, and sipping from the straw in her glass of Coke.

Suddenly, I couldn’t help myself and I gave a small chuckle because here I was, in a booth at IHOP, with a woman I almost ran over with my Trans Am and I was discussing tattoos with her after having bought her dinner.  I loved how eccentric my life could be sometimes.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing.” I replied.  “It’s just my life gets strange sometimes.”

“Know the feeling.” She said softly.

No, I thought, you couldn’t possibly know the feeling.  You really couldn’t.

It was late, my watch said it was a quarter till twelve midnight and I was starting to feel tired.  I finished up my sweet tea, got a fresh cup to-go, settled up the bill which was nearly twenty bucks all said and done, left a five dollar tip for Shelly then offered to take Joy home.  As it turned out I wouldn’t have to go far to give her a lift home; she lived in a one room efficiency apartment there on Lincoln Road.  I held the passenger side door open for Joy, shut it after she had gotten situated then hopped into the TA without bothering to open the driver’s side door.  I never got tired of the freedom that a car with T-tops offered in getting in and out of it.  I dropped into the driver’s seat, bounced once and threw my seat belt on.  Joy looked at me, smiling, not sure how to take what she had just witnessed.

“What?” I asked, setting into the driver’s seat.

“They make doors on cars, you know.” She said.  “You don’t have to jump in this thing like Bo and Luke Duke.”

“Saves time.” I said, putting the keys in the ignition and starting up the big cube V8 under the hood.

“Does look kind of cool though, if you can pull it off.” She said.

“There’s that, too.” I agreed.

I drove a quarter mile down Hardy Street, turned right near the Exxon station and followed South 28th Avenue all the way to the Lincoln Road intersection then turned right on Lincoln.  Joy lived within walking distance of my parents’ house.

Go figure.

Small world.

We turned left at her indication into the apartment parking lot.  The quad lit high beam headlights of the Pontiac illuminated a 1976 blue Chevy Monte Carlo with white vinyl half top, two door, factory wheels and in better shape than I had imagined her car would be.  In fact, it looked well taken care of.

“Is that your car?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It won’t start.” She said.

“Well, yeah, you told me that.  What I mean is … is it the battery?  Do you need me to jumpstart it?”

Joy sighed heavily.

“No.  I don’t think it’s the battery.  When you turn the key all the lights on the dash come on but if you try to start it the motor just makes a really loud screeching sound and some clicking, like metal on metal.  I tried for a while but then it got weaker and weaker so I just left it.”

“Starter.” I said.

“That’s what Deake thought, too.”

“Who’s Deake?” I asked.

“Deake’s the guy who’s sitting in his pickup looking for his nuts on the side of the road.  Remember?”

“Ah.  Yeah.  So that was Deake.”

“That was Deake.”

“Spelled D-I-C-K with a long ‘I’, right?”

She laughed at that and nodded.  I hopped out through the open roof, walked around and opened the door for Joy, getting her guitar, purse and denim jacket from the back seat then carrying them for her while she walked up to the front door of her apartment and used her key to let herself in.  I handed her the guitar and the denim jacket and she leaned up against the frame of the door, looking me over.

“Thanks for not running me over, thanks for the lift, thanks for the smokes … and thanks for dinner.” She said at last.

“No problem.  You looked like you could use someone being nice to you for a change.”

She smiled.

"Was it that obvious that I was throwing a pity party for myself?"

I nodded.

“Yeah, well ... I guess tonight didn’t turn out as bad as I thought it was going to turn out to be.”

“It could have been worse.” I agreed.

“Yeah.  It could have been worse.” She mused.

A pause and then she turned to go into her apartment.

“Goodnight, Saint Christopher.” She said whimsically.

“Goodbye, Bundle of Joy.” I said good naturedly, sticking my gloved hand out.

She took my hand and we squeezed, she matching my grip exactly and easily.

Amazon.

Bundle of Joy?” she asked, slightly amused.

“That’s what you said your name was like.  I think that’s your Indian given name.”

“I am one quarter Seminole on my great grandmother’s side.” Joy said.

“Then maybe you should have scalped Deake while you were at it.” I added.

“Maybe I should have.  Guess I forgot to pack my tomahawk in my purse before I went out.” Joy said, smiling.

I turned and walked over to the Pontiac, hopped in through the open top, stood in the driver’s seat and turned to face her, leaning on the center roof T-bar.  She still hadn’t moved from where she had been leaning up against the front door of her apartment.

“Hey!”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Did you tell me goodbye?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why did you tell me goodbye?  That’s kind of final, isn’t it?”

“Well, this is it, isn’t it?” I asked.  “I mean … you, me … us.  Chance meeting.  A few hours together.  We go our own separate ways.  Good memories.  A cool story to tell a few years from now.  Nothing else expected.”

“Is it?” she asked, looking pensive.

I hung my head and shook it because just when I thought I had my life all figured out life itself went and changed the rules on me.

“Is it?” I asked, finally looking up and throwing her question back on her.

Joy held up a finger indicating that I should wait and she took her stuff into her apartment.  A minute later she came back out, leaned up against the threshold again and held up her right hand in a smoker’s brace.  Between her two fingers was something small and white, it looked like a business card.  She waved it slowly in the air twice then flicked her eyebrows and nodded her head in a come-hither motion.  Her expression, those long lashes and her witchy eyes were inviting.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Something you want.” She replied.

“How do you know that?”

“Woman’s intuition.”

She waved the business card again enticingly.  I hopped back out of the TA and walked slowly over to her, boots crunching on the gravel in the parking lot.  She held the business card out to me and I took it, looked at it.

A Cut Above Hair Styling Salon.  T. J. Curtis.  Stylist.  Business address and business phone numbers.  Downtown Hattiesburg listing, old part of town.

“T. J. Curtis.” I said.  “The “J” stands for “Joy” but what does the “T” stand for?”

“Tuesday.” She said.

Tuesday Joy Curtis?” I asked a little louder than I guess I should have, tilting my head in surprise.

“Don’t say it.” She chided, a suddenly stern look coming over her face.

“No.  Wow.  Don’t take it wrong!  That’s a pretty unusual name.  Unique.  I like it.”

“Really?” she asked flatly.  “You like my name?”

“Yes.  I like your name.  Really.  I’m not kidding.  That’s a pretty neat name.  It damn sure beats being called Harriet or Susan, doesn’t it?”

“I guess it does at that.  People at work just call me TJ.” She said.

“TJ?”

“Yeah, but you don’t get to call me that.” She said.  Yet.

Yet?” I asked.

“Yet.” She said adamantly.  “Some things you get for free and some things you’re just going to have to earn.”

“Are they worth earning?” I asked, smiling.

“I’d like to think so.” She said.

She flipped the business card over in my fingers and there on the back was a phone number that was different than the one on the front and the words “call me” were written in big letters above that and underlined.

“Call me, Saint Christopher.” She said, walking back into her apartment and starting to close the door.

“Why?”

“Because for not being my date for the night you managed to show me a pretty damn good time; a lot better time than Deake showed me so … you get to call me and he doesn’t.”

“When?” I asked, still trying to mull the situation and her offer over.

“Tomorrow.” She said, closing the door slowly, watching me with those haunting, witchy eyes.  “Late morning because after tonight I think that I’m going to sleep late.  Really late.”

The door paused in closing, all I could see was one of her pretty eyes looking at me.  There was a lot of sadness there, mixed with regret and bad luck and a hundred other things that I wished I could just wipe away and make never have happened to her.

“Goodnight.” She whispered.

The door stood slightly open, cracked, as if she was waiting on something.

Goodnight.” I told her.

“That’s better.  That’s a lot better than goodbye.” She said and she moved to shut the door all the way.

The door was almost closed when I stuck my boot toe in and stopped it.  Joy looked up, amusement and … anger … in her expression.  It was difficult to tell with those witchy eyes and long lashes.

“One last thing …” I said.

“Yeah?”

“You were carrying a guitar tonight.  You were walking down the middle of a dark road, at night, carrying a guitar.  Before I go, you’ve got to tell me what that was all about.”

Joy smiled as her own boot started to slowly push mine on back out from holding the door open.

“No.  No, I don’t.” she said flatly.

And then she paused.

“Ask me about the guitar some other time, Christopher.” She said.  “It’s worth a listen, but I don’t feel like telling the story … not tonight … maybe not anytime soon.”

“Hey!” I whispered.

“What?” she asked, cutting her eyes at me and smiling a little.

“Things are going to get better.”

“Yeah?  Think so?"

"Know so." I said.

"Do you know when?”

I smiled, already making some plans for the next day.

“Things are going to get better starting tomorrow morning.” I said.

“Promise?” she asked.

“Promise.” I said, taking my boot out of the door and letting her slowly close it all the way.

The door shut all the way and I heard a deadbolt being locked followed by the sound of a chain being put on the door.  I stood there for a minute, replaying the events of the last few hours over in my head.  I had about fifty-three dollars cash and some change left in my pocket along with a business card that had an Amazon hair stylist’s name, her phone number and the imperative both written and spoken to call her tomorrow.  A woman who was one quarter Seminole on her great grandmother’s side, who was built like a roller derby girl, who had bewitching eyes and lashes, who could probably keep up with Flynn for smoking if not drinking and who was, all in all, a really interesting person to meet nearly by accident.

I walked back out to the Pontiac, hopped back in through the open T-tops, fired the 403 up and called it a night as I drove back home the long way. 

In fact I called it a damn good night.



 

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