Authors: Cameron Judd
by Cameron Judd
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, businesses, organizations, events, and incidents either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to events, or locales, is purely coincidental.
Copyright 2014 by Cameron Judd.
All rights reserved.
In memory of Bob Hurley, one of a kind.
“We all are men, in our own natures frail, and capable of our flesh; few are angels.”
– William Shakespeare
“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
– Sherlock Holmes (A.C. Doyle)
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve … and that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”
– Aslan (C.S. Lewis)
For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.
– Psalm 103:14
The Girl on the Porch
“DID YOU SEE THAT, MAMA?” asked a girl of ten from the back seat of an overheating Mercury Meteor rolling down a dark two-lane rural highway.
“See what, child?”
“That girl. Standing up on that porch with something tied around her neck, just like a dog. Wearing a white gown.”
The woman on the front seat, passenger side, twisted her neck and looked back at her daughter while taking a pull on the beer she’d been working on for the last three minutes. It was half empty now and would soon join three other empties already rolling around her feet. “Emmie, honey, you didn’t see nothing like that. You seen a white dog, betcha. Just didn’t see it clear for what it was.”
“Mama, it was a girl. Teenager. I seen her clear. Daddy did too … he was looking right at her. You seen her, Daddy! Tell Mama.”
The driver heaved his own emptied bottle out of his window to shatter on the graveled shoulder of the road. He belched loudly. “I seen a dog. Just like your mama said. Big white one, collar and leash on it, tied up to a porch pole. Only girl I’ve seen tonight is sitting right behind me, a little one with a lot of big blabber and big imagination.”
Emmie muttered disdainfully, folded her arms, and leaned back against the seat, glowering. Her brother, Dale, a year older than she, grinned smugly beside her.
The road ahead curved slightly. Around the bend, a pool of neon light revealed on the left a single-level row-style motel made up of side-by-side rooms with doors opening onto a sidewalk running the length of the row. A nearly identical second row of rooms conjoined the first one at the end farthest from the road, forming an L-shape. A strip of grass filled the space between the sidewalk and the edge of the parking lot. The motel office stood on the end of the main row, near the road. Behind the rows of rooms was a seemingly random cluster of separate concrete block cabins, unlighted and showing no sign of current use, apparent remnants of the motel’s origin as a “motor court” years earlier.
The driver abruptly whipped the Mercury left into the unpaved motel lot, kicking up a gray-white cloud of grit and gravel. The car skidded to a stop beside a molded-fiberglass sign that declared the motel to be the Winona Court Motor Lodge. Sitting nearby on the same lot was a diner, closed at this hour, named Winnie’s.
“Get this car back on the road, Donnie!” the woman snapped. “We got no reason to stop nowhere before we get to Nell’s house!”
The man jabbed his forefinger toward the dashboard. “Right there’s your reason, woman! We’re about to boil over, and if we try to get all the way to your sister’s that’s exactly what’ll happen. We’ll be broke down by the road with the radiator bubbling like a kettle and the engine locked up and ruined.” He pronounced “ruined,” Northeast Tennessee style, as
Lorene rolled her eyes. “It’s just a few more miles! We’ll make it. We can’t afford no motel, Donnie.”
“What we can’t afford is having the engine seize up ’cause we ran it hot!”
“Stopping here ain’t going to help. The car ain’t going to fix itself sitting here in the parking lot. It’ll just overheat again in the morning.”
“Nope. I’ll have it fixed by then. We passed a garage maybe half a mile back, some shade-tree mechanic backyard place sitting near a house, and the doors was wide open with a couple of dudes in there working on a pickup truck. The engine can cool down while we’re getting a room and then I can drive it back that far without a problem. New thermostat and we’ll be fine to roll first thing tomorrow.”
“Then why not go on back to that garage, fix the thermostat, then go to Nell’s tonight and save paying for a motel room?”
“You remember the holy hell your sister gave us that time we visited them and got there after midnight? Well, we ain’t giving her another chance for that.”
Lorene glared at him, eager as always to pick apart any plan he made. “So you figure they’re going to have the exact thermostat you need just lying around waiting for you in somebody’s home garage?”
“I got the thermostat we need in the trunk. I was going to put it in before we left the house today, but you bitched and fussed so much about us ‘having to get on the road’ that I decided to chance making it all the way without it. That was a mistake. Doing things your way usually is.”
“You go back to that garage, you’ll have to pay them for their help, Donnie. We can’t afford that.”
“It was just a home garage … they won’t ask no money. All I need is to borrow their tools and some light to work under, and I’ll do the job myself.”
“Use your own tools right here! There’s plenty of light from the motel sign.”
“I ain’t got my tools. With all your rushing us around this morning, I forgot them. I ain’t got so much as a screwdriver with me.” His voice went to a higher pitch in sarcastic imitation of his wife. “Got to get rolling, everybody! Got to get to Aunt Nell’s! Hurry up, kids! Hurry up! Get moving! World will come to an end if we’re late to dear old Aunt Nell’s!” He glared nastily at Lorene as he mocked her.
Her look back was equally hateful. “So it’s my fault. Like every other thing in the world, ’cording to you!”
His tone became cloyingly, fulsomely sweet. “Your fault, dear? Oh no, no. That ain’t possible.
your fault … you learned me that before we was married a month. Lorene don’t make mistakes. Mistakes are
“Well … it wasn’t me who forgot the tools, was it, genius?” she spat back. Then, beneath her breath, “Loser!”`
He heard it and loomed larger in the seat. For a moment it looked so much like he might hit Lorene that Emmie sucked in her breath and held it. Dale, beside her, glared at the backs of his parents’ heads. If Donnie had struck his wife, it would not have been the first time, but it would have been the first with the children looking on. It was that, perhaps, that restrained him.
He breathed heavily, stared out through the windshield, and forced a strained calm upon himself. Pulling a half-emptied soft pack from the pocket of his blue work shirt, Donnie lit a Camel and blew smoke out his window. Then he thrust the pack toward Lorene like an oddly hostile peace offering. She ignored it briefly, then plucked out a cigarette, even though it wasn’t her brand, and let him light it for her. Dale groaned inwardly with envy. He’d been sneaking his parents’ smokes for more than a year, and at the moment could surely use one. He preferred his father’s throat-kicking Camels because they seemed more manly, but was willing to settle for his mother’s gentler menthol Salems when he had to.
The adults smoked in silence, their children trying to be invisible. They had seen enough parental conflicts to know this likely would not end well. The less notice they drew to themselves, the less they would suffer in any coming explosions.
Lorene side-eyed her husband. “This ain’t a drive-in burger joint, Donnie. They ain’t going to send some carhop out on roller skates to hand you a room key through the car window. Get off your hind end and go rent us a room!”
Silently, biting back rage never fully absent from him, Donnie left the car and strode toward the office at one end of the row, flinging his cigarette away into the parking lot. Lorene sat smoking and drinking and dabbed a tear from her left eye. Her daughter noticed it and leaned forward despite silent signals from her brother to leave it all alone. “Mama? Are you all right?”
Half an inch of paper and tobacco burned to ash in one hard drag. Smoke jetted out the passenger window and the bottle tipped one more time. “I’m fine, honey. Mama’s fine. It’s just that …” She blubbered and lowered her face, eyes pinched shut.
“Mama, don’t be upset! Daddy was telling the truth. The car really has been running hot. There’s even some steam coming from under the hood, see?”
“I know … I know … I’m just … I’m sorry, children, that you have to endure so much from your daddy. His unfaithfulness, his temper, his meanness … I should never have brought two children into such a home as ours!”
“But then you’d have been all alone, without us. Just you and him. We wouldn’t be here at all.”
“I know, sweetie. I didn’t mean it like … I’m just saying it’s unfair to you children, the way things are sometimes in our family.”
“We’re fine, Mama,” said Emmie. “Really. We are.”
Lorene lifted her head and smiled at her children through her tears. “You’re what gets me through,” she said. “Both of you. I put up with his ways for the sake of you kids.”
“So really you’re glad you had us after all?” Emmie asked.
“Of course I am, sweetheart. You know I am. I love you two more than anything. You know what I’d do if anything I did ever brought harm to you? I’d kill myself. Really, I would.”
“Mama,” Dale asked, “what does ‘unfaithfulness’ mean?”
His sister gaped. “Don’t you know nothing, Dale? How stupid can you be?”
“Honey, he ain’t never had such a thing explained to him,” Lorene said gently. “He ain’t like his father, thank the Lord. Not yet anyway. ’Cause his father surely does know what ‘unfaithfulness’ is. Son, when somebody’s unfaithful, it means they’ve got a wife or husband, or at least a girlfriend or boyfriend, but still they go off and do things they shouldn’t with other people. I mean married kinds of things, man and woman private things. You know what I’m talking about, son?”
The little girl loudly whispered, “She’s talking about sex. But grownups don’t like to say much about that kind of stuff to kids.”
“Yeah, I know. But Daddy sure don’t mind talking about it. ’Cept he don’t call it sex. He calls it – ”
“Don’t you say that word, Dale!” Lorene barked, cutting him off. “You ain’t going to grow up talking like your daddy does. This family may not amount to much, but we ain’t trash! No sirree!” She downed a huge swallow of beer and belched.
Dale looked out his window, staring out across the road through the darkness. A car came down the road and headlights washed briefly over the side of a barn standing across the road from the motel. “Mama,” the boy said, “can we go somewhere in the morning and have pancakes?”
“You thinking about breakfast even before you go to bed, son?”
“There’s something wrote on the side of a barn over there. Like an advertisement sign, but on the barn wall. Something about pancakes. I only seen it for a second in some car lights.”
“We’ll worry about about pancakes in the morning,” she said, her beery breath filling the car with a yeasty smell mingled with the acridity of her cigarette. “Depends on what staying here costs us, I guess. On how much money your father wastes on this motel nonsense.” She sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with that man, kids. If it had been his kin we were going to visit, he’d have found a way to get us there tonight. He’s just trying to put off getting to Nell’s because he don’t like her husband being a preacher. Says he can’t act like himself around a preacher. Ha! To me it ain’t a bad thing when Donnie can’t act like himself.”