The morning was cold. Sid and I wore down vests over our warm-ups suits as we ran. Motley trotted along next to us as he had the day before, keeping pace perfectly. Little clouds of fogged breath followed us all the way.
It was a good thing Sid showered first. I was so chilled, I stayed in the shower until the hot water ran out, and was late to breakfast.
Daddy took off as I came in, but only because he had to show Les Stevens how to run the store.
“You want me to help?” I asked.
“Naw,” said Daddy. “Why don’t you stay here and visit.”
Mama shook her head as Daddy left. “He sure picked a fine time to leave you here. It’s my morning to help at the library. I’d cancel it, but the school kids are coming in and Patty’s short-handed as it is.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t been riding since I got up here.”
“Well, what about Sid?”
“I’ve got some notes to organize and some calls to make,” he said smiling.
“There you go.” Mama gave me a meaningful glance. “I’d better get going myself. Can you clean up, Lisle?”
“Sure, Mama.” I sulked as she gathered her purse and left.
Sid looked at me, puzzled. “I’ll help you clean up.”
“You don’t have to.” I finished the last of the toast and got up.
“It’s the least I can do.” Sid gathered plates.
“Sid, you’re a guest. You’re supposed to let us do it.”
“Aren’t you a guest, too?”
I sighed. “I’m family.” I smiled. “I really don’t mind cleaning up.”
“Then what do you mind? You’re not happy about something.”
I shrugged. “I was kind of looking forward to riding.”
“Then why aren’t you going?”
“Well, you’ve got work to do.”
“Yes, I’ve got work to do. What does that have to do with you?”
I put the dishes in the sink and sighed. “I work for you, Sid. If you’ve got notes to organize, then I’d better be here to help you with them.”
“I didn’t ask you to.” Sid leaned against the sink with his arms folded.
“You don’t get it, do you?” With a bitter smile, I turned on the water and waited for it to get hot. “You’re the boss and a man to boot. I’m supposed to cater to your needs.”
Sid thought. “I missed something.”
“Oh. It figures.” I squirted dish soap over the dishes and turned the faucet on them. “It’s Mama. She wants me taking care of you instead of gallivanting all over the place on a horse. It really bugs her that you’re her guest and you’ve been working at the store for us. Not that she’s saying anything, of course. You just don’t do that. But you sure catch hell if you don’t pick up the code.”
“I see.” Sid finished clearing the table and picked up a towel. “I do want to get our interview notes outlined for the casino piece, maybe even go over the tape, but to be honest, I’d just as soon do it by myself. Not that you wouldn’t be a help, but you hate that phase anyway.”
“So I organize differently.”
“Lisa, with all due respect, you are an excellent writer, but organizing it is not your strong suit.”
“This is true. There’s a typewriter in the living room. I could start transcribing that tape.”
“Why don’t you go riding? You don’t want to listen to an interview you’ve already done any more than I do. I’ll get the notes organized, and then we can decide what we want to pull off the tape.”
I smiled. “It’s strange. I still feel guilty.”
“I’ve been given to understand that’s a common occurrence among people with parents.” He smirked.
Once the kitchen was clean, I assuaged my conscience by getting Sid set up in the living room, then went in search of my riding boots.
Motley tagged along with me to the stables. Neff told me about this chestnut mare that Daddy had bought earlier that summer. She was a good, spirited mount, but not skittish. Motley barely got a nicker out of her. I was saddled up and trotting down a trail in no time.
I took the back way around to my by myself place. The mare was surefooted in the hills and Motley eagerly kept pace. He ran ahead as we neared the clearing, barking joyfully. I dismounted and led the mare through the trees.
Motley was busy sniffing out the whole clearing. Finally, he looked up and yipped disconsolately, as if he had expected to find something and hadn’t. He put his nose to the ground and went over the clearing again.
I tethered my mount to a tree branch, stretched and went over to the boulder. The whole clearing was like a little promontory, with a sharp drop on all sides except where the trees backed into the hill. The valley sparkled below in the gray sunlight of a misty morning. White specks of light danced in the waves of the lake. Somewhere in the trees behind me, a blue jay raised cain.
Motley barked anxiously. I turned. The mare nickered and tossed her head, but stayed calm. Motley was barking at a bush near the edge of the clearing. Or, as I got a closer look, what had been a bush. Something or someone had squashed it flat. A little piece of fabric was caught in the thorns. I pulled it free. It was a piece of cotton flannel plaid in royal blue and black, part of one of a thousand shirts worn by locals and tourists alike.
But Motley was excited about it. I put the scrap in my pocket and made a mental note to ask Sid what Murray had been wearing when he was found. Taking one more look around, I went back to the horse and took her home by way of a good soft horse trail. It didn’t take much to nudge her into a good spirited gallop, which Motley thoroughly enjoyed, too. I galloped her again on the cleared trail behind my parents’ place, then cooled her down to a walk before I stabled her.
When I got back to the house, Sid had put the typewriter on the coffee table and was rattling away at lightning speed.
“Good lord,” I gasped.
“Hm?” Sid looked up, then stopped the cassette player and removed the headphones. “Oh, you’re back.”
“May I ask why you are paying me to do your typing for you? You’re a thousand times faster than I am.”
“It is also one of my least favorite chores.” Sid stretched. “Phew! You smell like horse. Why don’t you clean up and we can get some work done? It’ll save me from transcribing.”
I laughed. “Then why are you doing it?”
“Nothing else to do,” he said shrugging and replacing the headphones.
A second later, he was rattling away again. I took my time cleaning up mostly because I didn’t want to get stuck transcribing. That has got to be the most mind-numbing job on the face of this earth. I had just finished changing when Mama knocked on my door.
“Sid told me he sent you riding this morning,” she said coming in.
I towel dried my hair and fluffed it. “Yep.”
“Did you have a good time?”
“Uh-huh. Took the new mare out. She’s wonderful. Where’d you guys find her?”
Mama laughed. “It’s a long story. I’m glad you had a nice time.”
“Yeah.” I got my notebook out of my purse. “Did you want to chat?”
“Oh, no. You got work to do, honey. Here, let me take that towel and I’ll put it in the hamper.”
“Thanks.” I hurried out to the living room.
“Lisle?” called Mama behind me. “Did you put your tack away?”
“Yes, Mama.” I sighed as Sid shook his head. “I’ll be seventy and she’ll still be checking up on me.”
Sid chuckled. “Which is precisely why I’m glad I got disowned. I can’t imagine anything worse than perpetual childhood.”
“Something tells me you were never a child.”
Sid just grinned and continued typing, all the while humming “All Day, All Night Marianne.” It’s just about the only thing I’ve ever heard him sing and the only time he sings it is after he’s been… [Doing it, humping, making the beast with two backs, getting it on, getting laid, screwing, fucking… Any others? – SEH]
“You’ve been here all morning, haven’t you?” I whispered.
“You haven’t been up to something, or should I say someone on the staff, have you?”
“No.” He hadn’t been.
I watched him type and hum some more.
“Must have been some night last night.”
“Yeah.” He sighed happily.
“You are so depraved.”
“Ain’t I, though.” He typed another minute more, then removed the headphones. “Would you believe I got it all done?”
“You’re kidding. There were three hours of interviews.”
“That’s about how long you were gone.”
“I was not.”
“Well, I scanned some of the unrelated stuff.” He rolled the paper out of the typewriter and leaned back on the sofa. “Did you have a nice time?”
“I had a great time. Will we need this typewriter anymore? I’d like to put it away before somebody trips on the cord.”
“Here, let me.” Sid got up and grabbed it.
“I got it out. I can put it away.” Which he did.
I shook my head. “It’s my turn to be confused. Why are you being so helpful?”
“Aren’t I normally?”
“Very helpful. It’s just… You didn’t have to help out at the store. Why did you?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea, really.” Sid looked at me and smiled. “It seemed better than sitting around watching you work, and there really wasn’t anything else to do.” He shrugged.
“I want you to know how much I appreciate it, and the transcribing, too.”
“You’re welcome. Shall we get some work done?”
I checked the front hallway. My mother was busy in the kitchen.
“I’ve got some other work for us to ponder.” I pulled the scrap of cloth from my pocket.
“Motley found it in this clearing I like. He was really excited about being there, and it suddenly dawned on me that Murray showed me the place originally. It’s not a bad place for a secret rendezvous, even at night. It looks out over the valley. The trees screen any noise, and people can’t see you from the trail. And it’s only about a ten-minute walk from the nearest road.”
Sid mused. “Less if you’re driving.”
“Not really. The trail’s not wide enough for a four by four. You might make it on a dirt bike, but they’re awful noisy for a secret meeting, and there are too many people around who would raise cain. I found the scrap in a bush that had been flattened, possibly by a fight. Things looked a little scuffed up there. The question is, does that scrap match what Murray was wearing when you found him?”
“Nope. He had red and black on.” Sid looked the scrap over. “This is not an unusual pattern.”
“You said it.” I took it back. “I would have written it off as a clumsy hiker except Motley was so wild about it. And it still doesn’t answer anything about Della’s killer.”
“Somebody tall.” Sid sat down in the easy chair and leaned back.
“That’s right. He is.” Sid mulled that over. “And if what you told me is true, he was very anxious to get into that suite.”
I flopped onto the sofa. “That had nothing to do with Della.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Sid got up and prowled. “Young Lothario seems to be oddly persistent in his chase.”
“I don’t think it’s so odd,” I said, playing miffed. “Don’t you think my own particular charm warrants that kind of fascination?”
“It does indeed.” Sid smiled his little smile that never fails to stir me up. “But even I know when to quit trying.”
I snorted. “If you’ve quit, I haven’t noticed.”
“You haven’t given me the brush off. You did give it to Mr. Haddock in no uncertain terms, at least that’s the impression I got.”
“You got the right one.” I noticed Sid watching me. “What are you looking at?”
“I have just now remembered that you do owe me something.”
“Where did that come from?”
The next thing I knew, and I have no idea how he did it, I was on my back, pinned underneath him.
“Sid,” I yelped. I started to tuck my feet under my seat, but Sid’s hand gently pushed them back down.
“No need for that,” he said, mischief gleaming in his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, you were concerned about all the uncompensated work I did at your father’s store, and there was a little something you more or less promised me Friday afternoon.”
His lips found mine in a sweet, warm, luscious, comfortable kiss. All too soon it was over.
“Oh, that,” I whispered. I gazed into his eyes. “Is this your idea of getting even?”
His grin turned sly. “No. This is.”
He moved fast, and before I could get my teeth closed, I was all but choking on his tongue. He knows I hate French kissing. It wasn’t that bad, but I tucked my feet up under my seat to let him know he was going over if he kept it up any longer than I was willing to let him.
“What the hell is going on here?” Daddy’s voice, thick with anger, split my ears.
I bucked. Sid went head first into the arm of the sofa, and as I tried to get as far away from him as possible, we both went over into the coffee table. Papers went flying. Sid got untangled first. I scrambled up, wiping my mouth, and faced my father.
“Nothing, Daddy,” I said quickly.
“Nothing, my ass!” Daddy started towards Sid. “If I ever catch you-”
That did it.
“It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what you catch me doing,” I yelled at Daddy, stepping in front of him. “In case you haven’t noticed, I am over age. I am a full-grown woman, and I will do what I please, including work for Sid. It’s my decision, not yours. And while I’m at it, will you get it through your thick skull that he is not going to rape or seduce me, and I am not sleeping with him, nor will I be sleeping with him unless we are married, which is pretty darned unlikely. I might also add that if I do decide to sleep with him, that is my decision, not yours. In fact, none of what I do with Sid is any of your business, so butt out!”
Daddy stood there, his mouth hanging open like a twenty-pound trout that couldn’t believe it had gotten caught. I had never, ever, in my entire life, yelled at him like that. Unable to speak, he stumbled out of the living room. I fumed in the silence that followed.
“Thanks for defending me,” said Sid finally.
I turned on him. “If you ever embarrass me like that in front of my family again, so help me, I’ll-”
“Wait just one minute here.” Sid glared at me. “Just because you’re mad at your father is no reason to take it out on me.”
“But I am mad at you, Sid. You should know better than to pull a stupid stunt like that.”
“Aw, for crying out loud. We both knew it wasn’t going anywhere. I thought we were past that nonsense.”
“That nonsense has nothing to do with it. We are in my parents’ house and my parents are here. Daddy doesn’t like you as it is. Do you have to make it worse?”
“We were just rough housing.”
“You know darned well what was going on on that sofa would not look like roughhousing to an uninformed spectator.”
“I kissed you and he caught us. Big deal. As you pointed out, we are not horny teenagers. We are adults, and if he can’t accept the fact that there’s nothing going on between us, then it’s his problem. Even if there was something going on, it’s his problem.”
“Lisa, I have dealt with many, many irate fathers in my time. There isn’t a thing you can do about them.”
“You’re not even trying.”
“There is no point in trying. Don’t you understand? As far as he’s concerned, I am moving in on his little girl, and he’s got to protect you. Men like that do not see reason.”
“You don’t have to write him off so quickly,” I sobbed. “Can’t you see how much your problem with him is hurting me?”
“Why? It has nothing to do with you, per se. It’s between him and me.”
“Didn’t it ever occur to you that it tears me apart to see the two men I care about most in the world at each other’s throats?”
Sid did the trout bit himself for a moment. I sniffed as the tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Do you really have that much invested in me?” he asked softly.
“Yes,” I whispered, flushing.
He sighed and looked around the room with darting glances. His gaze finally fell on me, full of tenderness. He came over.
“Sid…” I backed up.
“I seriously doubt your father will come back in here any too soon.”
“Probably not.” I sniffed and laughed at the same time.
Sid pulled me into his arms and we held each other. He kissed my hair.
“Lisa, I am trying. But I can’t change who I am, and that is the larger part of what your father finds fault with.”
“Not really,” I said and squeezed him. “He’s never liked any male I’ve gotten close to. If you could just talk to him.”
“I doubt he’d listen.”
“He will. I asked him last night to talk to you. He said he would.”
“Alright. I’ll talk to him. But I’m not making any promises.”
“Lisa, Sid. Oh!” Mama stopped in the doorway.
I pulled away quickly. “No, Mama. It’s not what you think.”
Sid bent and picked up the coffee table and the papers.
“I heard some yelling.” Mama smiled, completely flustered. “And after what your Daddy said, Lisle, I…”
“We were just joking around,” I said. “And Daddy took it wrong.”
“Lisle, we’ll talk about that later. Lunch is ready.”
“Oh, good.” Sid straightened.
We followed her into the kitchen.
“There’s sandwiches on the table,” said Mama.
“Thanks,” said Sid, calm as ever.
Mama sighed. “Are you two alright?”
“Fear not, Althea. All is resolved.” Sid sat down at a place setting and served himself.
“I just hope Lisa isn’t in any trouble.”
Sid laughed. “No, but I was for a few minutes there.”
Mama did the trout bit.
“That was hardly the first fight we’ve had, Mama,” I said, getting the milk out of the refrigerator.
“We fight all the time,” said Sid. “And speaking of, that’s not whole milk, is it?”
“Low fat,” I shot back. “Think you can compromise for a change?”
Sid rolled his eyes. “I suppose I’ll have to.”
“Lisle,” hissed my mother.
Sid caught it and grinned. “Relax, Althea. I am not going to fire your daughter for insubordination. Rather, I encourage it and the ongoing, if occasionally intense, open communication we enjoy.”
“Where’s Daddy?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“He went back to the store after he ate.” Mama glanced at Sid. “Like I said, Lisle, I want to talk to you about that later.”
“Don’t let me stop you,” said Sid. “There’s not much about your little girl I don’t already know.”
Mama laughed weakly. “I’m sure that’s true, Sid, but I’d still prefer to talk to Lisa privately.”
“Can I eat first?” I asked plaintively.
“Of course, honey.” Mama smiled and shook her head as I sat down and helped myself. “I know better than to keep you from your food. I swear, between you and your daddy, my food bill’s been miserable. You know, Sid, when Mae moved out, the food bill stayed the same. When Lisa moved out, it dropped a full third.”
“The dear girl has the appetite of a locust,” Sid replied, smiling.
“She most certainly does.” Mama gazed at the refrigerator. “She and her daddy have darned near emptied that already, and I filled it Monday. With Mae and Neil and the kids coming tomorrow, I’m going to have to go shopping this afternoon, and I’ve got cookies to bake for the kids.”
“You want me to help, Mama?” I asked.
“Do I detect an ulterior motive?” Sid sniggered.
“Not originally,” I replied. “But now that you mention it, I could see myself noshing on a little cookie dough. Maybe I’ll go ahead and make my famous chocolate chip cookies.”
“Ugh,” said Sid.
“You might like these. I make them with whole wheat.”
Sid shook his head. “No thanks. I never did like sweets.”
“Lisle, if you don’t mind coming to the grocery store with me, I’d like the company,” said Mama. “That is, if Sid doesn’t need you here.”
“I don’t know,” said Sid thoughtfully. “Think you could handle my company also?”
“Oh, Sid, you don’t have to,” Mama said, glowing.
“Of course not. That’s part of what makes it such a pleasure.” He got up and picked up his empty plate and glass. “The other part is the pure joy of spending the afternoon under the influence of your maternal charm.”
Mama laughed. “Young man, you and your snake oil. Now, here, let me take those.”
“Nah. Got to pay my room and board somehow.”
I hurried up and finished eating, and between the three of us, we had everything cleaned up in record time. In the meantime, Sid and Mama got into an extended discussion about menu planning. While food is one of my preferred topics, I much prefer eating it to talking about it. So as Sid and Mama put together the grocery list, I sat out on the back porch trying to piece things together. I didn’t get very far.
The trip to the store was a lot of fun. Poor Mama is on Sid’s side when it comes to healthy food, but she also likes indulging me when I’m home, so she made a point of distracting Sid several times while I stashed a few goodies in the basket. It was all but overflowing when we got to the check out counter.
“Well, hello, Althea.” The blonde checker was overly made up and closer to my mother’s age and had probably been at the store since she graduated from high school.
Sid perused the magazine rack at the end of the aisle.
“Howdy, Shireen. How are you?” Mama helped me empty the contents of the cart onto the conveyor.
Shireen looked at all the groceries. “Good heavens, Althea, what’s all this for?” She noticed me and laughed. “Well, I’d heard Lisa was in town.”
I flushed. Mama’s smile grew tight.
“Mae and her family will be here, too,” she said pleasantly. “They’re coming for the weekend.”
“How nice. Too bad about all that trouble you people are having.” Shireen’s fingers danced across the keys of the register. “All that business in Nevada, and now Murray. It sure is funny how Lisa’s boss seems to be in the middle of it all.” She glanced over at Sid, then lowered her voice. “Is that him?”
“Yes,” said Mama.
“He is something.” Shireen paused to look up the code for a bunch of kale, then gave me a meaningful look. “Almost makes you believe all the rumors.”
“Shireen, he has been a perfect gentleman,” said Mama, sounding cross. “It’s all just jealous talk, and nothing more. And the police say the two murders might be connected, so it’s no surprise Sid and Lisa have something to do with both of them.”
Sid ambled up, reaching for his back pocket. “Althea, can-”
My foot put gentle, but obvious pressure on his. He looked at me funny for a second, but shut up. While Mama paid for the groceries, he dropped a ladies magazine on the conveyor belt. Shireen gave him a puzzled look.
“What’s in that one?” I asked.
“The mutual funds how to.” Sid got out his wallet. “I could use an extra set of tear sheets of that one.”
“Is that one of the articles you wrote?” Mama asked.
“Yeah,” said Sid.
“You really are a writer?” asked Shireen. “That’ll be two dollars and seven cents.”
Sid handed her a twenty. “Yep.”
Shireen handed him his change with less lust and more admiration. Sid basically ignored her.
Mama was steaming by the time we all got back in the jeep. But Sid pulled out the magazine, which as he expected, got her interested in the article. It turned out she had the magazine at home and had even read the article and hadn’t noticed who wrote it. Sid ribbed her gently about not reading by-lines, then confessed he didn’t always pay attention either.
He also ribbed us about poisoning innocent children as we made cookies and refused to lift a finger to help.
“It goes against my morals,” he explained.
“Since when do you have any?” I teased back.
“Lisle!” hissed Mama.
“Mama, I know Sid has morals,” I said. “I was just teasing him because they’re so different.”
Mama sighed. “It doesn’t make any difference to me what Sid’s morals are. Some things you just don’t talk about in mixed company. ‘Tisn’t nice.”
Sid let out an exaggerated sigh. “Well, if we can’t talk about that, what will we talk about?”
Mama gasped, then laughed. “You are just terrible. I’m beginning to understand why Lisa yells at you.”
Sid laughed himself and got the lettuce out of the refrigerator.
“May as well get the jump on dinner,” he said. “What do you think about capers in the salad, too, Althea?”
Between the two of them, all I had to do was watch, which was fine with me. Daddy came in just after six. By that time dinner was ready, so he didn’t notice that Sid had done as much of the cooking as Mama. The last thing we needed was for him to call Sid a sissy.
I was really nervous about Daddy, but he acted as if nothing had happened. He talked about the store and Les Stevens.
“Alice came in early, too,” Daddy said as we finished eating.
“I wonder why,” I said.
“Just trying to be helpful, I expect,” said Daddy. “Practically took over the stock. Unpacked that whole shipment from yesterday and went through it extra careful.”
“No kidding,” said Sid. Our eyes met.
“Well, that was very nice of her,” said Mama. “It’s a good thing she’s trying to get started right with Les. You know how fond she was of Murray. Of course, Murray was always good with teens. But Alice and him were real good friends.”
“Really now,” I said.
Sid and I glanced at each other. We both had a pretty good idea of what Alice had really been doing.
“So what all are we going to do tonight?” Mama asked, changing the subject.
Sid glanced at me. “Well, if it’s alright with you, Bill, I’d like to leave the ladies to themselves and have a quiet chat with you.”
Daddy looked at me, then Sid. “McKinley’s bar alright?”
“Sounds fine to me,” said Sid. “Tell you what. I’ll buy the beer.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
They left right after dinner in the pickup truck.
“I hope it works,” said Mama, stacking dirty dishes next to the sink.
“So do I.” I grabbed the dishrag and wiped off the table.
“He was pretty upset by what you said to him this afternoon.” Mama ran hot water into the sink. “I can’t say he didn’t deserve it, but I do wish you’d found another way to say it.”
“He made me mad. I wish he could get it into his head that Sid and I are friends and that’s all.” I moodily tossed the rag into the sink. “I wish a lot of people would.”
“Like Shireen.” Mama set to washing the dishes.
“Yeah. Like Shireen. It was so obvious she thought Sid and I are… You know.”
“Doing what married people do.”
“Yeah.” I got a towel and started drying. “They just can’t believe that Sid and I are friends and that we don’t have that kind of relationship. Maybe it’s because we’re so close. I can talk to Sid and just be myself in a way that I’ve never been able to before. It means a lot to me and it hurts when people insist on jumping to the wrong conclusion.”
“Well, honey, people just don’t understand that a man and a woman can have a real relationship without all that. It’s a powerful urge.”
“Believe me, I know, Mama.” I dried a plate thoughtfully. “Mama? Do you and Daddy still..?”
“Still what, honey?”
“Still do what married people do?” I flushed. I don’t know why I wanted to know. I guess it was all the snide comments Sid had made about my father, and I wasn’t sure even if I did want to know.
Mama just smiled and glowed warmly. “Oh, of course. I don’t think we’ll ever stop. It just keeps getting better and better. That’s because your daddy and I keep falling more and more in love with each other. I tell you, Lisle, when I first married your daddy, I didn’t think I could love him any more than I did then. Now I know all I can do is love him more.” She paused, then looked at me. “And I want to tell you, Lisle. I know of no greater pleasure than making love to your daddy.”
“Oh.” I quickly dried the plate again.
Mama laughed softly. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you, honey. But I wanted you to know that. Married love is a very beautiful thing and I want you to have an idea of how beautiful it is for those times when you get tempted. And I know you do. It’s only natural. Sid is a very attractive man. Lord knows, he even tempts me sometimes.”
“He hasn’t tried to…”
“No!” Mama went back to the dishes. “He’s been a perfect gentleman.”
“He’d better be.”
“Of course, that’s probably part of the attraction.”
I did the trout bit. “Mama!”
We looked at each other, then burst into laughter.
We had finished cleaning up and were playing gin in the living room when the phone rang. Mama got up for it. The phone is in the hall next to the kitchen, so I couldn’t hear anything. I leaned back on the sofa and scratched Motley. Murbles and Richmond came up for their share of the affection.
“Lisle,” called Mama, hurrying in. “We’ve got to run. Sid and your daddy are in the middle of the biggest fight in years!”
“Oh my god!” I ran to my room and got my purse.
Mama had our coats in the front hallway. I dug for my keys as we ran out to the garage.
“I’ll drive,” I said, climbing behind the jeep’s steering wheel. I had it started before Mama was settled in her seat.
“I just can’t figure out what went wrong,” groaned Mama as I backed down the driveway.
“I have no idea. Sid just isn’t going to get violent unless he’s attacked.”
“Your daddy’s not going start anything unless he really lost his temper. I hope he’s not hurting Sid too badly.”
“I doubt it.” I shuddered. “Sid’s probably hurting him. He’s a lot tougher than he looks. Oh no. Maybe Daddy called him gay. Sid really doesn’t like it when a straight calls him gay.”
“Well, he knows Sid isn’t. Landsakes, with the way people have been talking, it’s only obvious.
“I don’t know what else could have started it unless Sid got crass and that’s what made Daddy mad.”
“I don’t know, honey.”
[I will now interject my recollection of what occurred at the bar. Neither the talk, or what happened afterwards, will soon be forgotten.
“Bottle or draft?” I asked Bill as we went in.
There was an awkward pause as Bill looked me over. We hadn’t really said anything on the way over beyond the usual trite observations on the weather. The bartender settled it.
“Howdy, Bill,” he called and waved. “Guinness Stout?”
“What’s your friend having?” The bartender gave me a shrewd once over. “Corona with lime?”
The regulars sitting at the bar watched. In fact, almost everyone in the room had their eyes on me one way or another. It wasn’t all that bad a guess, but I was not in a yuppy mood that night.
I shook my head. “You got Harp?”
The bartender looked surprised. “Afraid not.”
“Guinness Stout, then.”
“What’s on tap?”
I stifled the gag. “Stout, please. I’m buying for the two of us.”
Bill went off and found us a table in a quiet corner. The bartender got out the two bottles and a pair of mugs then took my money. I left a good tip in consolation. The regulars shook their heads and muttered amongst themselves. One young fellow went straight for the phone.
“Where’d you pick up a taste for Guinness?” I asked Bill as I sat down.
“Malcolm O’Malley.” Bill poured along the side of the glass. “Neil’s daddy. We were friends in college. Malcolm’s got family in England.”
I nodded. I poured my stout trying to find the right words to say. Strangely enough, I wasn’t getting much from Bill. (What’s strange about that? Daddy never was one to volunteer anything – ljw)
“Look, Bill,” I said slowly. “I realize there are a few differences in our respective philosophies and values. But I’d like to come to some sort of an understanding, seeing as though it looks like we’re going to be thrown together periodically. For Lisa’s sake.”
He glared at me. I went back over my words, wondering what the hell I’d said. He noticed.
“I guess you don’t realize, I had a talk like this with Neil some years back,” he growled. “And he started it just about the same way. Two days later, he and Mae were engaged.”
I laughed. “That is not going to happen, Bill. Lisa was telling the truth. There is nothing going on between us, at least nothing she doesn’t think should be.”
“What about you?”
I chose my words carefully. “Well, you have to understand, I was raised very differently than most people. I was taught that there’s nothing wrong with sex, or that it should be limited to any special context beyond free consent. I was also taught that marriage is a lie. Now I know you and Lisa don’t agree. I respect that. I just ask that you give me the same respect.”
“I’ll admit I’m a little worried about yours, but it ain’t values.” Bill sighed. “I don’t suppose you know much about being a father.”
“I, uh, made a point of surgically preventing that possibility some years ago.”
Bill nodded. “That would be the smart thing to do. What do you see when you look at Lisa?”
“I see a remarkable, talented, beautiful woman. She’s very caring, very efficient. I don’t mind admitting I’m very fond of her.”
“But you see her as a woman.”
Bill sighed. “She is at that, and a fine one, too. But when I look at her, I see a whole lot more than you ever could. I see a sixteen-year-old girl crying because she just missed getting on the pep squad. I see her heartbroken when some boyfriend of hers would break up with her and forget to tell her. I see a twelve-year-old girl who was up half the night working on a composition, making it the very best she could to impress her English teacher. He told her it weren’t worth bothering with in front of the whole class. I remember a little six-year-old girl who didn’t understand why she couldn’t go out and play with the other children because she was still pretty sick and we couldn’t let her catch cold. Then there was the double pneumonia when she was seven. And when she was born, I’d wanted a boy. Told all my friends and relatives I was going to have a son. But when I saw her in that incubator, she was so tiny, only four and a half pounds, she was premature, you know. She weren’t supposed to make it. I tell you, Sid, there’s no worse feeling than watching your child suffer and knowing there ain’t a damn thing you can do to stop it.” Bill took a deep pull on his stout. “She’s been hurt so many times by boys that only wanted her body.”
“I value her for far, far more than that.”
“I suppose.” He glared at me again. “But you got the best shot at hurting her.”
“I’d never do that, at least not consciously.”
“It’s the unconscious part that bothers me. Believe me, I know how it could happen. You get close. You get the itch and catch her off guard.”
I chuckled to cover my discomfort. “We are very aware of that possibility. Nothing’s happened, and I don’t think it will. I won’t lie to you, Bill. I would very much like to make love to her, and if the time ever comes when she can freely give herself to me without any guilt feelings, I will not refuse her. But the key word is freely. She can’t now and maybe never will, and that’s fine with me. I’m very happy with the way things stand right now. That may surprise you. It sure as hell surprises me.”
“You ever think about marrying her?”
“Not really. She has told me that’s the only acceptable way for us to make love, but I can’t make that kind of commitment to her. She expects fidelity, which is fine for her, but I feel is a little unrealistic. Like I said, I was raised with the idea that marriage is a lie. And to be honest, I don’t think she really wants to make that commitment to me or anybody. She’s very content as a single person. She values her independence.”
Bill laughed quietly. “She always was her own woman, just like her mama.”
“And like her father?”
“Nah.” He shook his head. “I’m just bull-headed.” He sighed then looked at me. “I can’t say that I’ll ever stop worrying about you.”
I nodded. “That’s fair, I suppose, since I’m not about to marry Lisa.”
“Who said I stopped worrying about Neil?”
“You two get along really well.”
He shrugged. “I just got used to him.”
I had to laugh and lifted my mug. “Here’s to getting used to each other, no matter how long it takes.”
We clinked glasses and drank. Bill finished his off. There was some commotion at the door as six young toughs came in. Bill ignored them.
“What say I buy the next round,” he said.
However, before he could get up, the toughs came over, led by a punk in his early twenties, if that old. He was scrawny, with bushy brown hair, a red nose that ran, and an anxious look in his eyes. Antsy is the only way to describe his movements, his whole demeanor.
“You Sid Hackbirn?” he demanded, his voice just barely in control.
“Yes,” I replied, regretting Bill’s presence. I had my twenty-two on my shin, but using it would raise too many questions.
“What do you want, Donny Severn?” Bill asked, also on guard.
“He’s been fucking my girl!” Donny’s voice cracked.
“Have you?” Bill watched me, wondering.
I shrugged. “It’s possible. I’ve gotten quite a few offers, and if a woman is offering herself to me, then I assume it’s her responsibility if she’s in a relationship with someone else, and I don’t ask if she is.”
“I knew it!” Donny lunged at me.
Bill put his hand up and stopped him, then glared at me.
“Do you ask how old she is?” he asked.
“If there’s any doubt, I’ll card her.” I looked at Donny, wondering. “What’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“I don’t have to tell you shit, fuckface.”
I looked at Bill. “I did card Alice Martin.”
“You fuck!” Donny lunged again. “You did it! Admit it. You did it!”
Donny’s friends held him back that time.
I laughed. “If you think I fell for that phony ID, think again.”
“You lie. She said you did. She said you raped her in the back room.”
“I never touched her. Sorry, Donny, but it wasn’t me.”
Donny burst forward and got a hold of my shirt, swearing with a remarkably limited vocabulary. I rose as he pulled me up, then grabbed his wrists and pulled them from my shirt. He was taller than me by at least six inches, and also had the reach to go with it. Even if he wasn’t all there mentally, that antsy, almost manic, mood of his made him exceptionally dangerous.
“I am not a violent man,” I said, giving him a small shove backwards. “But do not do that again.”
Stevie Wonder could have seen Donny’s swing coming. I wondered if I should deck him, then decided to catch his hand instead. I dug my fingers into the tendons on top of his wrist. Donny winced and yanked himself free.
“You prick!” he yelled, backing into his friends. “Next time stick to fucking Lisa Wycherly. Or isn’t her cunt good enough? Is that why you fuck everyone else?”
Bill started out of his seat.
“Bill, I’ll take care of this.” I walked over to Donny, got my fingers in his hair, and slowly pulled his face down to mine. “If you want to pick a fight with me, then so be it. But leave Miss Wycherly out. Is that clear?”
Donny trembled and nodded. I shoved him into his friends and turned my back. I heard Donny coming. It was always possible he had a knife, so I swung around and put my elbow into his jaw. The knife dropped from his hand and slid under a table. Anger rippled through the five other toughs like a fire through brush. As Donny staggered back, they rushed me only to find that Bill was there, too. The fight was on – SEH]
A crowd had gathered at the door of the bar. Mama and I pushed our way through. All of a sudden, everyone backed away from the center of the fight.
“He’s got a knife!” someone screamed.
“Where’d that come from?” yelped someone else.
“Under the table,” replied a calmer voice.
I nearly landed on my face when I finally got through to the front. Donny Severn slashed at Sid, who dodged. The two circled each other. Sid’s eyes were fixed on Donny’s shoulders, watching for the next lunge. Donny feinted, then slashed the other way. Sid rolled, then bounced back as Donny recovered. I crossed myself on reflex.
Moisture shone on Sid’s forehead, but it was nothing compared to the sweat Donny had broken. Drops of perspiration flew as Donny lunged again, just barely missing. Another drop wiggled from the end of Donny’s red nose. Donny charged and the drop broke loose. Sid rolled away. They squared off again.
Donny feinted then slashed. Sid was ready and waiting. He rolled, then caught Donny’s knife hand. But Donny was wild and struggled hard. Sid clamped his other hand around Donny’s wrist, trying to force the knife free. He backed into Donny, who dropped his free arm around Sid’s neck and forced the point of the knife towards Sid’s belly. The two strained until Sid slammed his foot onto Donny’s.
Donny howled. Within seconds, Sid had forced the knife free. He whipped around and put Donny out for the count with a strong left in Donny’s ear.
“Bill!” Mama cried.
She ran over to where Daddy stood gasping. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and I just barely noticed the dark stain. Sid, gasping, leaned his head back for a moment, then staggered towards Daddy. Blood dripped from his nose. Behind me, I could hear the police fighting their way through the crowd.
Daddy met Sid in the center of the room and shook his hand. Then he leaned on Sid’s shoulder and doubled over, hugging his aching ribs.
Daddy is not a brawler, but this wasn’t the first time he’d been caught in a fight. With him being so large and keeping himself up like he does, there are those who think it’s fun to take him on. The police officers knew Daddy, and there were plenty of witnesses happily swearing that Donny and his friends had started all the trouble and that Daddy and Sid were only fighting in self-defense. Not that witnesses were needed. The officers were perfectly happy to bust Severn and company.
Mama got Daddy into the truck, while I took Sid back in the jeep. We put them in the kitchen and tended to the wounds there.
“You boys ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” said Mama, as she wrapped Daddy’s chest with an ace bandage. “I don’t care what everyone was saying, there had to be a peaceful way of settling things.”
“And I tried every one,” said Sid.
He winced as I cleaned around his rapidly swelling left eye.
“Did you lose your contact lens?” I asked.
“That Donny Severn’s just a hothead,” grumbled Daddy.
“He’s more than that,” said Sid. “Unless I miss my guess, he’s hooked on coke.”
“Coke?” asked Mama. “I suppose you could be, but soda pop sure seems like a funny thing to be addicted to.”
“Mama,” I groaned, dropping ice cubes into a plastic bag. “Cocaine.”
“Oh, landsakes! What was I thinking of?” Mama paused. “But Sid, what makes you think that?”
I tied the plastic bag shut and wrapped it in a towel.
“His nice red nose and chronic sinus condition,” Sid replied casually, as he let me lay the improvised ice bag on his eye.
“That could be just a cold,” said Mama.
“Not really,” said Sid. “He was too antsy and anxious for a fight.”
“Well, you fixed him,” Daddy chuckled. “Would you believe, Althea, the wimp throws one hell of a punch.”
He does, too, and I know from personal experience. We were working out together one morning at the martial arts dojo we go to and Sid accidentally clipped me in the head. It felt roughly like being hit by a truck.
“Feeling dizzy?” I asked him softly.
“Not at all.”
“You hurt anyplace else?”
“Nope. Got it all in my face.”
“Bill always gets it in the chest,” said Mama. “That’s because he’s so tall.”
Finished with Daddy, she began picking up. I helped Sid out of the chair, and put my arm around his shoulders.
“I’m alright,” he grumbled, trying to pull away. “I can walk by myself.”
“You don’t have to,” I snipped. “So don’t.”
He gave in and I helped him into his room and shut the door as he eased himself onto the bed.
“Your observation regarding Donny is pretty interesting,” I said quietly.
“Indeed, it is.” Sid nodded. “Especially when you consider he’s very close to Alice.”
“There’s apparently some sort of relationship. That’s what the whole brouhaha was about. Alice had told him I’d practically raped her in the back room of the store and he was there to avenge her honor.”
“Curiouser and curiouser.”
“You said it.”
“But where does Donny fit in?”
Sid shrugged as well as he could. “I wish I knew. I’d really like to talk to him.”
“Unless you’ve decided to blow our cover, that will not be easy.”
“We’ll see.” Sid mused. “There are ways.”
I nodded. “I’ll bet. By the way, did you and Daddy get a chance to talk?”
“We even achieved a truce of sorts.” He smiled at me. “Your father is naturally worried because he can’t keep you safe in the fold, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s fully aware of the potential for disaster. In a way, I know how he feels.”
“What do you mean?”
“How many times have I had to come to your rescue when your date got fresh and you ditched him?”
I blushed. “Not that many.”
“But, Lisa, you are very good at getting yourself in over your head.” He smiled and reached out for my hand. I gave it to him and he squeezed it gently.
“You know me,” I said awkwardly. “I trust people, that’s all.”
“I know.” Sid sighed. “In some ways, I’d rather you didn’t. But you trusted me, and it’s made all the difference.” He looked away sadly.
His gaze settled on me. “I was just thinking about the fight.”
I nodded. “I thought I heard Daddy mumble something Severn talking dirty and you defending my honor. What was that all about?”
“That.” Grunting, Sid got up. “Severn just had a few nasty things to say and I let him know I was not going to tolerate it.”
“Is that when you hit him?”
“No. I waited until he attacked me.”
“Oh.” I sighed and looked away.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I just… I was wondering if you were standing up for me to impress Daddy.”
Sid smiled and put his hands on my shoulders. “For all I want to make peace, I’m not going to start a barroom brawl to impress your father. Severn’s remarks were grossly inaccurate, and while I did not want to fight him, I was not about to let them pass.” He looked into my eyes, his own bright blue ones full of warmth. “Lisa, I have a lot invested in you, too.”
I smiled, my heart pounding. “Thanks. I needed to hear that.”
He gave me a quick hug and released me. “Goodnight, Lisa.”