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Hoosier Daddy – A Heartland Romance, Chapters 1 & 2

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A Special Note to Our Readers: Hoosier Daddy is a work in progress—as chapters are drafted, they are being uploaded to The Royal Academy of Bards. You will likely notice a few inconsistencies here and there as you make your way through the online version of the story. We have made some tweaks and subtle adjustments to the plot, most specifically to timelines. For this, we ask your indulgence, and promise that in the final, full-length, published version of the novel, everything will make sense. If not, we reserve the right to blame our editor.

Violence/Sex: No violence, but some quirky sexual encounters and lots of big trucks. This story does involve a consensual, loving and romantic relationship between two adult women. It’s not graphic, but if sexual encounters in bathrooms or behind lemon shake-up stands offend you, you may want to consider another story selection — or at least one that isn’t set in Indiana.

Copyright: Ann McMan and Salem West, April 2013. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any format without the prior express permission of the authors.

Chapter 1

 

This is the city: Princeton, Indiana.

I live here. I’m a Hoosier.

This small prairie town is the heartbeat of America. It’s populated by wholesome, corn-fed men and women like me: folks who work all week from sun up until sundown, then clean up and go to church on Sunday. Hearty types who listen to country music, eat fried catfish at the VFW, and never apologize for buying cars that can pass anything but a gas station.

I work for Ogata Torakku of Indiana. We make trucks. I’m a line supervisor, and I carry a clipboard.

My name is Jill Fryman. My friends call me Friday.

Ogata, or OTI, as we call it, is new to the landscape of southern Indiana. The manufacturing plant had formerly been one of the flagship production facilities in the stalwart Krylon Motors family. The Princeton plant produced Krylon’s top-selling “Outlaw” pickup—the self-styled “Workhorse of the American Farm.” But when the economic tsunami hit back in 2008, Krylon was one of its biggest, Midwest casualties. The undercapitalized, debt-ridden mainstay of the American automotive industry bravely soldiered on for a few more years before collapsing like a rusted-out Yugo. Unlike GM, Krylon wasn’t too big to fail; it was just the right size. Fortunately for me and the other 4,499 employees who had grown up and grown old walking its production lines, Ogata Torakku swept in at the eleventh hour and acquired the Princeton plant lock, stock, and impact wrenches. It wasn’t so much the people of Krylon that Ogata wanted: it was the Outlaw—a gas guzzling, monster pickup that managed to lead the pack in domestic sales for three years running. Outlaws were only built at the Princeton plant, and when Krylon went under, we were the pick of the litter in its corporate selloff.

None of us really knew how much our lives would change once the Ogata transition team arrived. We had heard rumblings that they planned to implement the same “lean manufacturing” techniques that were common in other Japanese transplants—and even that they might move production of their all-new Mastodon monster truck to Indiana. Beyond rumor and innuendo, we knew next to nothing else, and the transition was still months away. Most of us were just grateful to still be getting a paycheck, and we took things one day at a time. That pretty much summarized life in a small, Midwest manufacturing town.

Wednesday started out like any other hot, summer hump day. People were already cranky because of the record heat and humidity, and that made them even more inclined to fuss about all the overtime hours and extra shifts that kept getting tacked on after the sellout. I did notice, however, that most of the loudest complainers had little to say when they picked up their fat paychecks. I’d already been on the line for nearly six hours without a break, and my bladder was about ready to burst. I knew it had been a bad idea to drink that whole Bigg Swigg of Diet Dr. Pepper I picked up at Huck’s on my way in that morning, but hindsight is always 20/20. I waved my clipboard at Buzz Sheets, the shift foreman with a bad comb-over, and pointed in the direction of the bathrooms. He made a face at me, but I walked off the floor anyway. Enough was enough. I’d been on my feet since seven, and I needed to pee.

When I came out of the stall, I heard a familiar voice.

“Hey, Friday? You get a new watch?”

My best friend, T-Bomb, was pointing at my wrist with a crinkle cut French fry.

I looked down at my watch. I’d lost my Ironman a few weeks ago when I took it off outside to give my dog, Fritz, his biannual bath. When he broke loose and high-tailed it for the cornfield across the blacktop, his leash snagged the stack of towels—and my watch—and drug them halfway across the front yard along behind him. I didn’t see Fritz for about three hours, and I never found my watch again, either. And I’d been working so much that I hadn’t had time to get to Walmart to pick up a new one.

“Nope,” I held up my arm. “It’s Grammy Mann’s vintage Seiko.”

T-Bomb bit off half of the drooping fry, “Thought so, that one’s awful girlie.”

Terri Jennings had a way of boiling things down to what Grammy Mann called “brass tacks.” She’d been that way since grade school. And she never eased herself into any situation. She just sort of exploded in the middle of it. That’s how she got the nickname “T-Bomb.” She was one of only a handful of people at OTI who knew I was gay. But that’s not really saying a lot. Around here, it was kind of hard to tell the difference.

I tore off a sheet of paper towel and dried my hands.

“Why do you always eat in the bathroom? It’s so gross.”

“It ain’t that bad unless one of them corn crackers drops a bomb.” She snagged another fry out of her red and white gingham boat. “Besides, if these dip wads gave us more than ten minutes to pee and eat our lunch, I wouldn’t have to bring my food in here.” She dipped this one in ketchup before shoving it into her mouth. “Ain’t this what you managers like to call multitasking?”

A stall door banged open. Luanne Keortge squeezed out, struggling to hike her drawers up over her mountainous backside. She was already chewing on the end of a Viceroy. You couldn’t smoke inside the building, so Luanne was multitasking, too. Every time I saw her with a cigarette, I worried that her hair might go up. Luanne tended to use a lot of product.

“You got that shit right,” she rasped. “I have to decide whether I want to use my breaks to eat or smoke. Ain’t got time for both—the wait in the cafeteria is always too damn long.” She glanced over at T-Bomb. “How the hell do you always get Pauline to make those? She won’t do ‘em for anybody else.”

Pauline Grubb ran the company cafeteria—and you pretty much got whatever she felt like serving. Ten minutes to load your tray and wolf down your meal didn’t leave a lot of time for discussion or argument.

T-Bomb paused in mid-chew. “Hell, I don’t know. It’s probably because I didn’t marry her idiot son.”

It was hard to argue with that. Pauline’s boy, Earl Junior, was 38 years old and still lived at home in his mother’s doublewide out on Peach Bottom Road. There had never been an Earl Senior, as far as anyone knew—so there was pretty wide speculation about how Pauline actually ended up with her big, dim-witted son. There were lots of theories, however—and I had my money on Buzz Sheets. Earl Junior’s hair was already starting to recede, and his comb over was beginning to look eerily familiar. Earl Junior worked for OTI as a stock chaser. He pretty much sucked at it, however, and I’d had to follow behind him more than once to move skids loaded with lug nuts out of harm’s way. Most of us just learned to shrug things like that off, and accept that Earl Junior was “special.” That was generally the safest way to ensure that you’d get something other than creamed corn for lunch if you ate in the cafeteria.

Luanne headed toward the door. “See you back on the line, T-Bomb.”

I felt like an underachiever, since I was only in there to take care of one kind of business.

“You goin’ out after work?” T-Bomb asked. “Bobby Roy’s band is playing tonight at Hoosier Daddy.”

Hoosier Daddy was our local bar. Most of the people who worked at OTI stopped in there after their shifts for codfish hoagies and five-dollar pitchers of Old Style. Bars in Princeton pretty much fell out along company lines. That meant if you worked at OTI, you went to Hoosier Daddy. If you worked at Millennium Steel, you went to Pood’s. If you weren’t sure where you belonged, you just looked at the types of trucks that filled up the parking lots. Outlaws meant it was an OTI hangout. F-150s meant Millennium.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” T-Bomb tended to get louder when she didn’t get her way. “Come on. You gotta quit hiding.”

“I’m not hiding.”

“Well, what do you call it, then? Nobody’s seen hide-nor-hair of you outside this place for the last month.”

“I’ve just been busy.”

“Busy my butt. You ain’t done nothin’ since you caught Misty Ann hittin’ it with Joe Sykes behind that stack of Duelers in the warehouse.”

I looked around the bathroom to be sure nobody else was there. “Would you mind lowering your voice?” I ducked down and took a quick peek beneath the stall doors.

T-Bomb was still eating her fries. “Relax…there ain’t nobody else in here.”

“Well, hold your voice down, anyway. I don’t want everybody knowing my business.”

“Girlfriend, nobody in three counties gives a twat about your business—including you. And if you don’t start using it, it’s gonna dry up and drop off.” She licked some ketchup off her fingertips. “I told you that Misty Ann was trash. She’s nothin’ but a steamin’ pile of hot mess. You know she was just using you to get back at her husband for knocking up that Turpin girl again.”

I hated it when T-Bomb was right. Misty Ann Marks and I had only been going out for a few weeks when I caught her with Joe. I felt ridiculous for letting myself get involved with a straight woman. I always knew it wasn’t going to go anyplace. Still, it hurt like hell when I realized that she had just been using me.

“I hoped it would go someplace,” I said. I knew how lame it sounded as soon as the words left my mouth.

“Yeah? And if a frog had wings it wouldn’t bust its ass hoppin’ around.” She ate her last French fry and tossed the empty paper boat into the trashcan. “Donnie has the twins tonight, and I want to go out. It would do you good to go, too.”

“Look, I’m just busy, okay? Don’t bug me.”

“I think you’re a lying chicken shit. You need to get back out there.”

“Why? So I can be humiliated all over again?”

T-Bomb was now picking at something lodged between two of her front teeth. “Nith twy. Ith not nobody’th fault that thu make bath thoithes.”

“What the hell did you just say?” I asked. I glanced down at my watch again. “Never mind. If I don’t get back out there, I’ll have to let Buzz grab my ass again so I won’t get docked for being late.”

She’d finished picking her teeth, and was now examining whatever it was that she’d removed. I headed toward the door.

“I’ll wait for you in the parking lot after work,” she called after me. “You can go for just one drink. It won’t kill you.”

“Whatever,” I said. I headed back out to the line.

The rest of the shift was pretty uneventful. Five minutes before I was ready to hit the time clock to punch out, Buzz caught up with me.

“Got a second?” he asked.

I sighed. Buzz’s “got a second” questions always meant I was in for at least another hour of work.

“Not today, Buzz. Okay?” I tried my best to look stern. “I’m dead on my feet and I really need to get out of here on time for a change.”

Buzz ducked his head closer to me. That always creeped me out—not just because he was such a lech and thought that every woman in the plant wanted to get horizontal with him. Actually, vertical would be more accurate. Buzz seemed to prefer upright hookups—usually back in the warehouse, where I saw Misty Ann with Joe Sykes. He also wore too much cheap cologne. The smell of it, mixed in with the ambient odors of axel grease and polymer, was probably giving us all some kind of nasty lung disease that would someday get OTI nailed in a class action lawsuit.

I took a step back. He didn’t take the hint, and moved in closer again.

“There’s a film crew here from Channel 25. They need to shoot some footage for a piece they’re doing about OTI maybe bringing the Mastodon here.”

If OTI decided to ramp up the Princeton plant to produce the Mastodon—a quad-cab, full-size pickup with 32-inch Sidewinder radial tires and a twin six engine—it would mean adding 450 jobs, and four hundred million to the local economy. This would be a real boon to the tri-state area. It made sense that a TV station from Evansville would come here to get the story.

“Oh, come on, Buzz. Where’s Jerry?” Jerry Sneddin was supposed to be our plant’s public affairs rep. But the only thing “public” about Jerry’s job was the affairs part. The rest of the time, he was pretty much M.I.A. “I’ve covered his butt the last three times we’ve had reporters in here. I’m beat, and I wanna go home.”

“Jerry cracked a molar on a pistachio nut, and he’s out getting a crown.”

“A pistachio?” I waved a hand toward the line. “Who in the hell around here has time to eat pistachios? Most of us don’t get long enough breaks to pee.”

Buzz was losing patience with me. “This won’t kill you, Fryman. You’re always mouthing off with that women’s lib crap about not getting promotions—then when we ask you do step up and do something, you complain about it.”

“That’s a load of B.S., and you know it. When have I not done anything you’ve asked me to?”

“You mean besides today?” he asked.

What a dick Chiclet, I thought. “Okay. Fine. But this time, I’d better get paid for the overtime.”

“Management don’t get overtime pay. You know that.”

“Oh, really? Last time I checked, I still punched a time clock.”

He shrugged. “You wanna dance to the music, then you gotta know when to fold ‘em.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you play the cards your dealt, without biting the hand that feeds you.”

I sighed. This was going no place fast. “Yeah. Whatever.” I looked around. “Where are they?”

He gave me a crooked smile that was more like a leer.

“They’re setting up on the catwalk.” He jerked a thumb toward the rafters. “Just give ‘em the standard spiel. You know the drill.”

I ought to: I’d pretty much been doing this ever since the OTI buyout got announced.

“Okay. I’m on it.”

Buzz reached a stubby hand down to his crotch and adjusted his package. “From your mouth to god’s little acre.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re a sick bastard, you know that?”

“Come on, Fryman…anybody who hits it with Misty Ann Marks can’t be all that picky.”

“Screw you, Buzz.”

“Any time. Any place.”

I gave up and turned away from him. “Jerk.”

“You know where to find me when you change your mind,” he called after me.

Yeah, I thought, behind a dumpster, where you belong.

I headed for the maze of catwalks that ran along the rafters above all the production lines. They crisscrossed the plant in complex patterns that reminded me of Grammy Mann’s tatted lace dresser scarves. The Channel 25 film crew was already in place. It wasn’t hard to identify the “talent.” She looked like she’d just walked out of a display window at Ann Taylor. I had no idea how she’d managed to climb up here in those shoes—or where they found a hardhat big enough to cover her hair. She smiled when she saw me and held out her hand.

“Are you Jill? I’m Mona Simms. Mr. Sheets said you’d be giving us the tour. I can’t thank you enough for doing this. I promise we won’t take too much of your time—we just need some background footage.”

I nodded. “No problem. What would you like to see?”

Mona waved a handful of sculptured nail enhancements toward the assembly line below. “This looks pretty good…lots of bright color and big action. How about we set up right here?”

We were standing over the part of the line where a massive orange hoist lowered an Outlaw cab and box onto a preassembled chassis. For people unfamiliar with the process, this was the most exciting part of production because it’s where the actual truck came together.

“Okay,” I agreed. “How can I be helpful?”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll just ask you some general questions while Mitch, here, films what’s happening.”

I nodded.

Mona signaled the cameraman to start recording. “So can you describe what we’re seeing below?” she asked me, in a perfectly modulated, prime time voice.

“Sure,” I said. “This is the part of the manufacturing process where three major assemblies converge. The cab and bed are lowered onto a preassembled chassis by robotic arms. This particular unit is called the ‘marriage machine,’ because it’s where the body meets the chassis.”

“Amazing,” Mona added.

Behind Mona and Mitch, Luanne Keortge was ambling toward us on the catwalk. Luanne was a quality control inspector, and part of her job was to walk the line. I signaled to her to wait up for a few minutes—I was pretty sure we’d be moving along to another area soon.

“If you look closely,” I continued, “you can see how precisely the cabs and beds align with the vertical chassis bolts. This machine is actually the most sophisticated piece of equipment in the plant.”

“The colors are just sensational,” Mona cooed. “How many different trucks do you make here?”

“That’s a good question. With all of the possible combinations of options—engines, transmissions, tires, colors, interior appointments—I suppose you could say that we make more than 60,000 different kinds of trucks.”

“Incredible,” Mona actually sounded impressed.

Below us, another cab and bed were seamlessly lowered onto the next chassis rolling forward on the line.

“What the hell?” Mitch blurted. “Get a load of this!” He was now leaning over the railing, trying to get a better angle on something.

I looked over at him. “Hey—don’t do that…it’s dangerous!”

Mona now had a hand pressed to her mouth. She looked at me, then back toward the marriage machine. I had a sinking feeling. It would be just my luck to have a six million dollar robot pick this precise moment to drop one of the cabs.

“Oh, sweet Jesus.” Luanne had plainly seen whatever went wrong, too. “That sure as hell ain’t on my checklist.” She reached over to a pillar and hit an emergency stop switch. The production line below us ground to an immediate, seven-thousand-dollar-a-minute halt. The momentary silence was deafening. Then I could hear laughter drifting up from someplace.

I looked down. Two naked figures were writhing around in the bright yellow bed of an Outlaw Super Duty 450. I was stunned. From the tattoos, I could tell that the woman was Misty Ann—and the man on top of her was none other than our company public affairs rep, Jerry Sneddin.

Mitch was laughing out loud now. “I suppose this is one of the 60,000 options?” he asked between snorts. “I could make a fortune with this shit on YouTube.”

Luanne huffed her way over to stand next to him. “It sure is, honey.” She pulled a pack of Viceroys from her shirt pocket and tapped one out. “But I can’t say as I agree with puttin’ the stick shift in the back door.”

I sighed and took another look at Misty Ann. T-Bomb was right: I’d been hiding long enough.

Tonight, I was heading for Hoosier Daddy.

 

Chapter 2

 

Bobby Roy’s band wasn’t playing until nine o’clock, so the crowd was getting warmed up at the Karaoke machine. Normally, this was just too painful to endure for long. Nothing could make the cheap beer in your belly turn sour faster than listening to a bunch of drunken auto workers croak their way through a cover of on “Friends in Low Places” on open mike night.

I sat at a table in the back with T-Bomb and Luanne, trying to ignore the obnoxious music—and everything else. When I first walked into the bar a little bit after six, it was clear that everyone there had already heard the story about Jerry and Misty Ann. A chorus of “Sixty-Thousand Options!” roared out above the music. I tried to just roll with it and not show how much it bothered me. That was generally the best way to get people to drop it and shift their attention to somebody else’s misfortune.

I was well into my second beer when I caught a whiff of something nasty and took a look around.

“What’s that smell?” I raised a hand to my face.

T-Bomb pushed her chair back and took a look beneath our table. “Oh, hell—it’s that damn Lucille.”

Lucille was an ancient and morbidly obese Jack Russell Terrier. “He” was a fixture at Hoosier Daddy. Nobody really understood why Aunt Jackie, the owner and bartender, had named her unneutered male dog “Lucille.” Lucille was famous for his bad disposition and his righteous gas. The crankiness probably came from two decades of being called by a girl’s name. The epic flatulence was the likely result of being fed a steady diet of fried codfish.

“Sweet Jesus.” Luanne fired up another Viceroy and blew a plume of smoke across the table to try and mask the odor. “That damn dog is a menace. Shoo him outta here, T-Bomb.”

T-Bomb looked beneath the table again. “Too late. He’s already settled-in. Now he’s lickin’ his business.”

“Oh god.” I finished my bottle of Stella. I didn’t go much for the beers Aunt Jackie kept on tap. “That’s an image I didn’t need.”

“Why?” T-Bomb nudged me on the arm. “Remind you too much of Jerry and Misty Ann?”

Luanne snorted. “Hell. From what I saw, Lucille is hung a lot better than Jerry Sneddin.”

T-Bomb shook her head. “Cheap bastard couldn’t even spring for a motel.”

“Hey? A bed’s a bed, right?” They both laughed and clinked mugs.

I’d had just about enough of this. “You two aren’t helping, you know that?” I looked around the bar. Aunt Jackie was nowhere in sight. I pushed back my chair. “Want another round?”

T-Bomb held up their empty pitcher. “You don’t have to ask me twice.”

When I got to my feet, I noticed that someone else had taken the stage. It was a woman I’d never seen there before. She was small with short dark hair and a dusky-looing complexion. She did not look like a local. There was a small round of whoops and hollers when she picked up the microphone.

“Hey, everybody,” she said. Her voice was low and kind of husky sounding. “I’m kind of new at this, so don’t be too hard on me.” A man who appeared to be there with her was setting up the Karaoke machine. When he had it set, he gave her a thumbs-up and returned to his seat. The slow, sexy music started. After all the country caterwauling, it turned just about every head in the place.

“You’re just too good to be true,” she crooned. “Can’t take my eyes off of you. You’d be like heaven to touch. I want to hold you so much.”

You could have heard a pin drop in that joint.

I’d heard that Frankie Valli song about ten thousand times in my life, but never before had it affected me the way it did right then. It was like her voice had reached right down inside me and wrapped itself around all of my internal organs.

And I noticed that my external organs were acting pretty impressed, too.

“At long last love has arrived, and I thank god I’m alive. You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes off of you.”

“Who in the hell is that?” Even T-Bomb seemed impressed.

“Her name’s El-somethin’,” Luanne said.

“L?” T-Bomb asked. “What the hell kind of name is L?”

“E-L,” Luanne spelled. “Like El DeBarge.”

“Oh.” That seemed to make more sense to her.

“She and that good lookin’ fella, Tony, are from New York,” Luanne added.

I looked down at her. “New York?”

Luanne nodded and made a face. “U.A.W.”

Oh, man… It figured. She was a union rep. And she’d have to be hot, too. And straight. I needed to get out of this damn town.

The crowd in Hoosier Daddy was having no problem with her performance. People were on their feet now, clapping and dancing and shouting the chorus.

“I LOVE YOU BABY, AND IF IT’S QUITE ALL RIGHT, I NEED YOU BABY, TO WARM THE LONELY NIGHTS…”

El just kept on crooning. I about dropped the empty pitcher and my Stella bottle when I saw her notice me standing against the back wall. Her voice actually faltered for a moment, but she caught up to the machine pretty quickly.

“Pardon the way that I stare,” she sang. I thought I might slide right down the wall and join Lucille on the floor beneath our table.

“There’s nothing else to compare. The sight of you leaves me weak. There are no words left to speak.”

What was happening to me? I sank back down onto my chair.

T-Bomb was staring at me. “What the hell is the matter with you? You look white as a sheet.”

I tried to shrug it off. “I think I just need something to eat.”

“Well, here.” She shoved a plastic bowl full of redskin peanuts toward me. “Eat some of these, and we’ll order some fries.”

I looked down into the bowl. It was mostly salt and skins.

“I think I need some air,” I said.

Luanne was staring at me. “Honey, what you need is better sense. You stay away from them agitators.”

“What are you talking about?” I was mortified that she might have noticed my reaction to the woman singing.

“I saw the way you were staring at her—it was like somebody looking at their first Eldorado.”

T-Bomb slapped her on the arm. “Good one, Luanne! Eldorado. Just like El DeBarge.”

I’d had just about enough of these two.

“Excuse me?” a husky voice asked. “I saw that you ladies were dry. I took the liberty of asking Aunt Jackie what you were drinking. May I join you?”

“El” was standing next to our table, and she was holding a fresh pitcher of Old Style and a frosty bottle of Stella Artois. I glanced up at her. She had smoky gray eyes. I opened my mouth to say something, but no sound came out. Up close, she looked like a slightly older version of that dark haired actress from those Northern Exposure reruns that used to be on A&E in the mornings. What was her name? Janine…something.

El continued to stare at me, and I realized that she was waiting for me to say something.

Thankfully, T-Bomb was enough like Mother Nature to hate a vacuum.

“Hell, yes, honey. You put that pitcher right down here in front of me and pull up a chair.”

Luanne ground out her cigarette and shook her head. Her bloodshot eyes were fixed on mine. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she said. Then she held up her empty mug. “One more, then I gotta head back over the river.”

T-Bomb punched me in the ribs. “What’s the matter with you? Get her a chair.”

“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “Let me get you a seat.”

El finished pouring Luanne’s beer. “Thanks.” She looked at me. “My name’s El.”

Turner. The actress’s name was Janine Turner. El looked enough like her to be her older sister.

I stood up and grabbed hold of the table to steady myself. “I’m Friday…Jill,” I said.

“Friday Jill?” she asked. “That’s unusual.”

“No. Just Friday. Jill.”

“Friday? Jill?” she asked again.

I sighed. “Jill. But my friends call me Friday.”

She smiled. I thought I might pass out. “I’m Eleanor. But my friends call me El.”

“Like DeBarge,” T-Bomb cackled.

El looked at her. “Just like DeBarge. Although I never understood why Janet Jackson married into that family.”

“Me neither,” T-Bomb was holding up her mug. El filled it.

“I always liked her on Good Times,” Luanne chimed in.

“She was a sweet girl before she started acting so slutty.” T-Bomb sucked the foam off the top of her beer.

Luanne nodded. “Wardrobe malfunction my ass.”

“Hey? I say, if you got ‘em, flaunt ‘em.”

“You sound just like Jailissa.”

Jailissa was Luanne’s teenage daughter.

“What’s your last name?” T-Bomb asked El.

El shrugged and sat down on the chair I pulled up for her. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated? How?”

“It’s just hard to pronounce, so I don’t use it much.”

“Hell,” T-Bomb scoffed. “That don’t make you unique around here.”

El smiled at her. It was like somebody turned all the lights on. “Wanna bet?”

“Sure.” T-Bomb took the bait. “Let’s hear it.”

“It’s spelled R-Z-C-P-C-Z-I-N-S-K-A.”

T-Bomb and Luanne exchanged blank looks.

“How the hell do you say that?” they asked in unison.

“Zhep-sin-ska,” El replied.

“Zhep-what?” T-Bomb asked.

“Zhep-sin-ska,” El repeated.

“I see why your friends call you El,” I added.

El looked at me. “Be my friend, Friday Jill?” she asked.

Luanne cleared her throat. It sounded more like she was hocking up a hubcap. “How the hell many points do you get for a name like that in Scrabble?”

El laughed. “About two hundred and eighty—if you had two ‘Z’s’ and were lucky enough to hit a triple word score.”

“You sound like you done that a time or two,” Luanne observed.

“I do all right,” El replied. She was looking at me again.

Maybe I was wrong about that straight part…

“We were just gonna order some fries,” T-Bomb blurted out. “You hungry, El?”

El smiled again. “As a matter of fact, I think I am.”

“Working a room will do that to you,” Luanne said.

El looked right back at her. “I guess I don’t have to tell you that I’m here with the U.A.W.”

Luanne shook her head.

“News travels pretty fast around here.”

“Well, singing Karaoke ain’t the best way to keep a low profile, now is it?”

El laughed out loud. “Touché.” She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Miss…”

Luanne sighed and shook her hand. “K-E-O-R-T-G-E. Luanne Kerr-chee.”

“Her name’s complicated, too,” T-Bomb added. She was getting pretty toasted. It was looking like I was going to have to call Donnie to come and pick her up. “I’m Terri, Jennings,” she said. “But my friends all call me T-Bomb.”

“Why,” El asked. She shook hands with T-Bomb, too.

Luanne tapped out another Viceroy. “Hang around long enough and you’ll figure it out.”

El looked at me again. “Sounds like a plan to me.”

I stared back at her without saying anything. Then I realized that saying nothing was like saying everything. I dropped my gaze to the table. “So…are we going to order some food, or not?”

“Not for me,” Luanne took a long drag off her cigarette. “I gotta head back across the river. Bessie Sykes is comin’ by to let out the seams in Jailissa’s dress. I swear…that girl had to get them boobs from her daddy’s people.”

T-Bomb looked Luanne over. “Her daddy’s people must a had good legs, too.”

“Kiss my ass. I got these damn cankles from thirty years of standing up for ten hours a day.”

T-Bomb held out her left palm and drew the fingers of her right hand back and forth over it in small arcs. “Know what this is?” she asked. Luanne just glared at her. “It’s the world’s smallest violin playing ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’”

I looked at Luanne. “Is Jailissa in the competition again this year?”

Luanne nodded. “That crown had better be hers this time. Jay’s gonna go postal if another one of them Hortons walks away with the title.”

“What competition?” El asked.

“Pork Day, U.S.A.” T-Bomb explained. Her voice had taken on a reverent tone. “Being crowned Miss Pork Queen is the biggest honor of the year over in Albion.” She took a big swig of her beer. “Them pork chop sandwiches are mighty good, too—as long as you don’t bite into a bone.”

“Really?” El asked. Then she looked at me again. Her eyes weren’t just gray. They had little flecks of green and gold in them. “Guess it’s a good thing I gave up bones a long time ago.”

Ever had beer shoot out your nose? Yeah…well that’s what happened to me, and it wasn’t pretty. I sat there coughing and trying to sop it up off the front of my shirt. This was going from bad to worse in a hay wagon. My face felt hot. I hastily got to my feet and nearly stepped on Lucille, who expressed his displeasure by growling and breaking-off another ripe one.

“I need to go to the restroom,” I said. “Excuse me.” I hurried away from the table before anyone could notice that I was blushing.

What the hell was my problem? I was acting like a teenager with her first crush. No…it wasn’t a crush. I was reacting to El like a sow in heat. It had to be some kind of extreme response to seeing Misty Ann in the back of that truck with Jerry. I needed to get out of there before someone else noticed and doused me with a bucket of cold water. I was just lucky that T-Bomb was feeling no pain. I’d never hear the end of it if she got a clue.

The bathroom at Hoosier Daddy left a lot to be desired. One of its two stalls was permanently out of order, and only one light bulb in the ceiling fixture ever worked. Still, for all that, it was clean and didn’t reek as badly of smoke and spilled beer as the rest of the place. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same thing about my t-shirt. It was sticking to me like a pile of last night’s mashed potatoes. All I wanted to do was try and rinse it out so I wouldn’t smell like a brewery on the way home.

I walked over the sink and took a good look at myself in the cracked mirror. There I stood: Wayne and Sissy’s little girl. Even in half-light, you could tell that I had my father’s reddish hair—and the same cowlick on the left side. But in every other way, I took after my mother’s people: tall, square featured—with what Grammy Mann called an “ample bosom.” And as the condition of my t-shirt now suggested, I had the same unfortunate propensity for ending up in colossal messes. That was pretty typical of the women in my family, too. My mom was fond of telling people that my nickname actually came from “Friday the thirteenth,” because I had so much bad luck.

I sighed and turned the water on. When I reached over to pull a couple of paper towels out of the wall dispenser, I realized that it was empty…as usual. Aunt Jackie stored the extra towels on a shelf behind the only working toilet, and when I went into the stall to retrieve some more, I snagged the end of my shirt on the changing station. I stood there wondering for the thousandth time why aunt Jackie even had a changing station in here. I couldn’t remember a single time I ever even saw a baby in this joint. Lucille had to be the bar’s closest thing to a “child”—and nobody would ever try to lift his fat butt up.

I tried to tug my shirt free, but only succeeded in getting it more stuck. The damn cartoon Koala bear kept smiling up at me from the trap door of the changing station, seeming to suggest that being stuck there was something I should be enjoying. I was about ready to give up and tear myself loose when I heard the restroom door open and close.

“What are you doing?” a voice behind me asked.

It was El. I knew it without turning around. The sound of her voice just did something to me.

“I’m stuck,” I explained. I hoped she’d decide to leave me alone and go back out into the bar. Why had she followed me in here?

About a hundred reasons for that one occurred to me, and not one of them felt safe. I gave my t-shirt another frustrated tug. Still no dice. It wasn’t budging—and, apparently, neither was El. She was standing behind me in the stall now. The tiny space filled up with the scent of cucumber and melon. Even though it was a nice change from the omnipresent odors of smoke and stale beer, it was making it impossible for me to think straight. I felt like all the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck.

“Can I help?” El asked. Her voice was coming from right behind me now. I thought I could feel her breath.

“No!” I erupted. “Sorry,” I apologized. “I’m a little on edge tonight.”

She laughed. “I noticed.” She leaned against the open door of the stall. “Do I make you uncomfortable, Friday Jill?”

What do you think? I wanted to ask. “Well, right now, I’m kind of at a disadvantage.” I tugged at the hem of my shirt again. “It’s hard to put your best foot forward when you’re being held captive by a Koala Kare changing table.”

“I’ll have to take your word for that one.”

“I’m sorry about this…did you need to use the bathroom?”

“Not really.” El drawled. “I followed you.”

Oh, god. This was going from worse to catastrophic. “You did? Why?” Oh, that was good…now I sounded as dim-witted as I felt.

El sighed. “Why don’t you let me help you get unhitched from that contraption so we can talk?”

She wanted to talk? “Talk about what?” I asked. I tried to shift my body around so I could at least see her face.

“Well, for starters, I suppose we could talk about whether you’re as attracted to me as I seem to be to you.”

I slammed my knee into the toilet paper dispenser. “Jumpin’ Jehosophat!” I was seeing stars—and not just from the pain in my kneecap.

El grabbed the backs of my arms to help support me. “Are you okay?”

I was doubled over in pain. “Do I look okay?”

“Hang on a minute.” She maneuvered herself around so she could close the stall door and give us more room. “Oh, this is ridiculous. Why don’t you just take that thing off?”

I was incredulous. “My shirt?”

“No…your pants.” I heard her sigh. “Of course your shirt. Then we can get it out of that damn thing.”

“I am not taking my shirt off.” Although I had to admit that the idea of doing so was already shooting excited little text messages out along my…extremities.

“Well then stand still and let me try to loosen it.”

“I’ve been trying to loosen it. It’s not budging.”

“Move over so I can reach it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Move over where? On top of the toilet?”

“We need to open the damn thing.”

“I agree—but there isn’t room in here.” El was pretty much pressed up against me by this point, and there was no way I was going to ask her to leave.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” She moved in even closer and reached around me with both arms. “I’ll hold onto this,” she said, “while you pull the tray down.”

I was seeing stars. “Um. El?” I managed to croak.

“Yes?” Her voice was coming from someplace right beside my ear.

“That’s not my shirt.”

“It isn’t?”

I shook my head.

“Oh,” she said. “My bad.”

I noticed that her hands didn’t move right away. I turned my head to look at her. In the dim light of the stall, her eyes looked…scared.

Scared?

“What are we doing, El?” I asked. I had no idea where my coherence was coming from.

She gave me a shy-looking smile. “Trying to get you unstuck?”

I thought about Misty Ann and Jerry. Getting “unstuck” was exactly what I needed. And getting involved with a stranger who also happened to be an operative for the U.A.W. was not the way to do it. What I was on the verge of doing with El was exactly the opposite of getting unstuck. Grammy Mann would say it was like jumping from the pot into the kettle.

I opened my mouth to say as much, but El decided that maybe words weren’t really what we needed right then. She was moving in to present a different kind of argument. Just when her lips connected with mine the walls of the stall started shaking. It took me a few seconds to realize that it wasn’t an earthquake—it was someone yanking on the door.

“Will you two hurry the hell up,” a gravelly voice demanded. “I have to tap off.”

Luanne. Of course.

El and I guiltily leapt apart like we’d been caught…making out in a bathroom stall.

“Oh, fuck…” she whispered.

“Oh, Judas…” I replied.

We pushed and jostled against each other in the tiny space trying to right ourselves, alternately banging into the changing station, the toilet paper holder, the shelf loaded with paper towels, and each other. We were slamming into each other like bumper cars at the county fair.

“Oh, sweet Jesus.” Luanne had had enough. “Just open the damn door and get out here. This ain’t my first rodeo.”

El sighed and finally managed to turn herself around. I looked down and noticed that at some point during our tussle, I had managed to yank my shirt loose from its prison. The bad news was that it was now ripped nearly in half. Great. Like I didn’t have enough problems.

We managed to pry the door open and squeeze ourselves out of the tiny stall.

Luanne stood there like Judge Judy, chewing on one side of her lower lip.

“There were no paper towels,” I started to explain.

Luanne didn’t say anything. I could tell that she was staring at my shirt. I was doing a bad job trying to hold it closed—it was torn open about halfway up to my armpit.

She looked at El. “In a hurry, were you?”

El looked confused. Then she glanced down at my shirt. Her face turned bright red. For some reason, that made me feel a little bit better.

“Not that it would make any never mind to you,” Luanne continued. “But your partner out there has a couple of live ones cornered by the keno machine.” She jerked a thumb toward the bar. “He asked me to send you back out there.”

El looked at me. “I’ve got a jacket you can use. I’ll go and get it.”

Before I could say anything, she had pushed past Luanne and hurried out of the bathroom. I stared at the door for a minute before I had the courage to look back at Luanne.

“Go ahead and get it over with,” I said.

Luanne was already unfastening the front of her pants. “I got nothin’ to say, so I’ll just say this,” she said. “If you want to be the next Misty Ann Marks, there’s a bar full of contenders out there who would be happy to accommodate you—and none of them are workin’ for the U.A.W.”

“That’s not fair, Luanne.” She was squeezing her way into the stall now, so I was talking to her broad back. “I am not like Misty Ann.”

Luanne didn’t say anything right away. I stood there, stupidly, listening to the sound of her peeing. It went on and on. She must’ve had a lot more Old Style to drink than I realized. Finally, the toilet flushed.

“Like I said,” she huffed. “I got nothin’ to say. A smart girl like you should have better sense. Here…” One of her hands shot out around the half-open door. It was holding a stack of folded paper towels. I took them from her. “Put those up in that dispenser.”

I caught another look at myself in the mirror. My hair was a mess. When the hell did that happen? Luanne was right: I should have better sense.

The door to the restroom opened again and T-Bomb burst in. “What the hell is going on in here?” she demanded. She handed me a lightweight, tan linen jacket. “El DeBarge said I should bring this in to you.”

I took it from her. “Where is she?”

“Hell…she laid a patch getting’ outta here. She said you could get the jacket back to her some other time.” T-Bomb reached out a hand and grabbed hold of the hem of my t-shirt. “What the hell happened to your shirt?”

I sighed. “It’s a long story.”

Luanne had managed to extricate herself from the stall. “Hurry up and pee, T-Bomb. I gotta head back across the river.”

“Well if you’d get your fat ass outta there, I might could,” T-Bomb replied.

“Are you both leaving?” I asked. This evening had sure not ended up the way I thought it would.

Luanne was now washing her hands. “I called Donnie and told him I’d drop her off on my way home. He said they’d pick up her car tomorrow morning.”

“I told you I was okay to drive,” T-Bomb bellowed. “I don’t need no damn limo service.”

Luanne rolled her eyes and reached for a paper towel. “Just tap it off and be quick about it.” She looked at my reflection in the mirror. “Same advice goes for you, missy.”

I gave up trying to defend myself and pulled on El’s jacket. It smelled just like her…sweet and fresh. Like summertime.

I had a sinking feeling that this one was going to be a tough row to hoe.

“I’ll try,” I said to Luanne.

She snorted.

“What?” I asked.

“That’s what Jay told me sixteen years ago when we were sprawled out across the back seat of his daddy’s Buick. Nine months later, we got ourselves Jay Jr.”

Jailissa. Edwards County’s best hope for this year’s Miss Pork Queen title.

I supposed the odds could always be worse.

To be continued….

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