Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams
"Why, ain't this a coincidence!" squealed Estelle as she poked her head out of the window. "I was all set to go inside and ask for directions to Camp Pearly Gates, but here you are."
I looked at the somewhat less enthusiastic passenger in the front seat. "What are you all doing here?"
Estelle got out of the car and dragged me behind the gas pumps. "Your mother is mightily depressed," she said. "She wouldn't hardly eat a piece of pizza last night, and this morning she couldn't find the energy to go to the flea market on the other side of Hasty. We go there most every other week, you know, and just last month she found a real nice cookie jar."
"And you think rebuilding bleachers will make her feel better?" I asked.
Ruby Bee gave Estelle an icy look as she joined us. "What's going on is that the electrician came and said he had no choice but to cut off the power to the bar for four or five days. That meant everything in the freezer would spoil. The stove's ruined, so there's no way I could cook it all up. I was gonna get some trash bags when Estelle suggested we pack up all the food in ice chests and come down here for a few days. If nobody wants catfish and chicken fried steaks, I can dump it in the garbage bin, same as I would have done in Maggody."
Estelle stared at me, perhaps thinking we were in the midst of some sort of mute communication. "What's more," she said with a shrill laugh, "we brought bedrolls, fishing poles, and suntan lotion. When Ruby Bee's not cooking, we'll be sitting on the dock in our shorts, gazing at the clouds and dabbling our toes. You reckon there's room for us?"
"There most certainly is," I said, worried by my mother's demeanor. "I haven't seen much of the lodge, but I was told there are bedrooms on the second floor. I can assure you that anything you're willing to cook will be met with glee; Mrs. Jim Bob's proposed menu for this evening consists of spaghetti, lima beans, and applesauce."
"You never had a taste for applesauce," Ruby Bee said, brightening a bit. "I've got ten pounds of catfish steaks, along with enough cornmeal for hushpuppies."
"And a quart of Joyce's green tomato relish," added Estelle. "Just watching Mrs. Jim Bob's face when you serve it ought to make every mile of the drive worthwhile."
Ruby Bee struggled, with marginal success, not to gloat. "We drove by a produce stand on the edge of town. If Arly here can tell us how to find this campground, we can go back to buy some new potatoes."
I found a scrap of paper on the floor of the bus and drew them a map, relatively uncomplicated since only one road went through Dunkicker. "I've got a couple of bags of cheeseburgers for the kids," I said, "but I can assure you they'll all be waiting to unload everything when you get there. You'll have whatever help you need in the kitchen."
Ruby Bee stiffened. "I'll have you know I've been feeding folks at the bar and grill for thirty-odd years, with no help from anyone, including the likes of you."
"Of course not," I said.
"So don't go thinking I need help these days. I may not cook fancy food like they do in Noow Yark City, but nobody's ever left my bar and grill with an empty stomach or a complaint about the black-eyed peas."
I stared helplessly at Estelle, who could only gnaw on her lower lip. "Nobody, Ruby Bee. Why don't you pick up potatoes at the produce stand and come on to the camp? I'll have some of the kids haul the ice chests to the kitchen and carry your suitcases upstairs. I can't promise the fishing is any good, but -- "
"It ain't like I can fix crepes," Ruby Bee said, getting testier with every word. "I hope you all can handle buttermilk pancakes and sausages for breakfast."
"Sounds great," I said as Estelle hustled Ruby Bee back into the station wagon, gave me a grim look, and drove away. I toyed briefly with the idea that Ruby Bee might be persuaded to see a doctor in Farberville, but I knew it was a ridiculous premise. There was no way on God's earth that I could hint that she might be in the throes of menopause, or even suffering from depression as a result of the fire in the kitchen. She'd raised me on her own, with help from no one. She would accept none now.
I put four dollars' worth of gas into the guzzler, went inside to pay, and drove back to Camp Pearly Gates with eighteen cold cheeseburgers and a premonition that I was in for a rough week.
Dahlia Buchanon had never been one to keep her feelings bottled up like orange soda pop. When Kevin came in the door, she hauled him over to the kitchen table.
"Look at this!" she said, breathing heavily, as she almost always did. "Kevvie Junior and Rose Marie are gonna be famous! We ain't gonna haft to worry about the high cost of braces and piano lessons and college!"
"We ain't?" said Kevin as he sat down at the table and fluttered his fingers at the babies, who were drooling on plastic toys in the playpen. "That's good to hear, my sweetums, 'specially now that we have another little angel on the way. Jim Bob ain't likely to give me a raise afore Christmas."
Dahlia sat down across from him and thrust a folded newspaper at him. "See this, Kevin? It sez that Hollywood is on the lookout for babies to model in advertisements. They'll earn so much money that you can quit your job at the supermarket. It's gonna break your ma's heart when we move to California, but maybe she and Pa can come visit ever' now and then. Why, we can afford to send a limousine to pick 'em up at the airport and bring 'em right to the front door of our mansion."
Kevin tried to imagine his pa riding in anything but a pickup truck, then gave up and took a closer look at the newspaper ad. "It sez they're looking for babies and children. Why do you reckon they'd pick Kevvie Junior and Rose Marie?"
He rubbed his chin. "Well, there's no questioning that they're cute as a pair of junebugs."
Dahlia glowered at him. "And ... ?"
"Rose Marie has the sweetest grin I've ever laid eyes on. Kevvie junior's gonna be a fine football player; his little arms are just twitching to throw a pass down the field. I always thought I could be a quarterback, but then -- "
"Your nose got broke on the first day of practice," Dahlia said, "if you recollect."
Kevin most certainly did recollect. Shirelle Pomfritte had been on the sidelines, practicing a routine with the pep squad. Instead of dashing to his aid with a lacy hanky or even an ice pack, she'd outright brayed while he staggered around the field, bleeding like a stuck pig. Remembering the moment brought tears to his eyes.
He blinked and peered at the small ad. "It doesn't promise a million dollars."
"Kevvie junior and Rose Marie are twins. They'd probably earn more if they was triplets, but there's not anything we can do about that." Dahlia smiled at her five-month-old cash cows, or calves, anyway. "Can't you just see 'em in one of those commercials on television? There they'd be, smiling at the camera and winning ever'body's hearts." Her expression abruptly darkened with a menace that rivaled a thunderstorm gathering over Cotter's Ridge. "You got to promise me one thing, Kevin Fitzgerald Buchanon, and I mean it."
"You know I'd hang the moon for you," he said, meaning it but not real clear where this was going.
Dahlia sat down in his lap and wrapped her arms around him. "If we get all-fired rich and live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, you won't go running after some skinny little actress in a bikini. I know I'll be all swollen like last time, with my ankles thick as stumps and my belly so big it could be mistaken for a ten-pound sack of turnips. If I was to lose you to a starlet, I don't know what I'd do. Swear you won't leave me, Kevin."
"Leave you?" he said, squirming as his legs became increasingly numb. "You are the light of my life, my dandelion wine princess. You are the mother of my fine, sturdy children, and the only thing I think about all day while I mop the floor at the SuperSaver and restock the shelves. Ain't no sickly actress ever gonna catch my eye, much less steal my heart away."
"Well, then," Dahlia said as she stood up, "I'm gonna call this number on Monday morning. We got the two cutest babies in the country. Not even Brother Verber could say it's a sin to take advantage of that."
Kevin was kinda glad Brother Verber had rolled out on the bus, along with Mrs. Jim Bob. He didn't want to think about what his parents would say over Sunday breakfast, but he had a good twenty-four hours to consider it. With any luck, about the time the scrambled eggs and grits were set on the table, the babies would commence to wail, Dahlia and his ma would get all flustered, and his pa might not hafta hear about the limousine just yet.
"Don't go fingering those cupcakes," said Jim Bob, glaring at the scruffy boy who'd been lingering by the checkout display. "Shoplifters go straight to the state penitentiary, where they're locked up in cells with murderers and rapists. You won't last twenty minutes with the likes of them. A little pissant like you'd be someone's girlie about the time you took your first shower."
"I ain't dun nothing."
Jim Bob was feeling pretty good, what with his wife gone for a week. Brother Verber was gone as well, meaning there'd be no tedious church service in the morning or one of those goddamn awful potluck suppers in the evening. Without green bean casseroles and raw carrot salads facing him in the immediate future, he figured to take home some tamales and beer, put his muddy shoes on the coffee table, and watch wrasslin' on the television. He'd burp and belch so loud the windows would rattle clear across the county. His farts would scare off any skunk that dared come across the yard. He'd sleep naked and put on dirty underwear in the morning. It was unfortunate that Cherry Lucinda was peeved at him, but she might relent by the middle of the week if he showed up on her doorstep with a handful of daffodils from the garden out back and a pint bottle of peppermint schnapps.
It wasn't all that bad being single, Jim Bob thought as he continued to glare at the kid. "Get your sorry ass out of here. I'm giving you a break this time, but if you ever set foot in here again, you'll end up being a princess at the prison prom."
"Fuck you," the kid said succinctly.
"Haven't I seen you before? Seems to me you're one of Robin Buchanon's bushcolts. Hammet's your name, right? You and the rest of the runts did some serious damage to my house. All of you should have been hauled off to the pound and been put out of my misery, if not yours."
"Want I should spell it this time?"
Jim Bob thought about smacking the kid, but he was in too good a mood to bother. "Go on now, and don't come back. All the checkout girls are gonna be on the watch for you. Set foot in here again and I'll whip your sorry butt, then have you arrested."
"Like you could," the miscreant said as he backed toward the door. "Like you could fuck your way out of a gunny sack." His further parting remarks were obscene, implying without subtlety that Jim Bob's mother had found satisfying sexual relationships with immediate family members and farm animals. Some of the combinations were highly improbable, but they were enough to cause Eula Lemoy to clutch her bosom and Constantinople Buchanon to clack his dentures as if they were castanets.
"What you gaping at?" Jim Bob snarled at the checkout girls, then went back to his office and pulled out the bottle of bourbon he kept in his desk drawer. Somebody ought to come up with a bigger fly swatter, he thought as he took a pull on the bottle. Little shits like the one up front needed to be slapped flatter'n a red flour beetle.
He amused himself with the scenario as he finished off the bourbon and sat back. Cherry Lucinda could stew in her own juices for a few days. In the meantime, there was no telling what pretty things might be at the Dew Drop Inn on a Saturday night.
While the cat's away, he thought, rubbing his hands together, the mice got no choice but to play.
Hammet hunkered by the Dumpster behind the supermarket, greedily gnawing on a discolored head of lettuce. He would have preferred a sandwich, but at least he'd made it out the door with a candy bar in one coat pocket and a package of cheese in the other. He hadn't had more than a few crackers in the last twenty-four hours, and he forced himself to eat as much lettuce as he could.
When his gut growled ominously, he tossed aside the lettuce and prowled through the vehicles parked alongside the building. All of them were locked. He supposed he could bust out a windshield with a rock, but it wasn't gonna do him much good to steal CDs or magazines. It wasn't gonna do him much good if he saw a key in an ignition switch, for that matter, since he didn't know how to drive.
One truck caught his attention. It was parked nearest the steps leading up to the delivery dock, and a spray-painted sign on the wall indicated that the space was reserved for Jim Bob. Slashing the tires would have been entertaining, but required a knife or a screwdriver. He found a sharp rock and scratched lines across the doors and hood.
The problem was, he thought as he threw the rock into the trees at the back of the parking lot, Arly weren't nowhere to be found. Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill was darker than the inside of a cow, and all the motel units were locked.
There weren't no way of knowing if the shack was still standing up on Cotter's Ridge. Even if it was, the only food he might hope to find there would be scraggly carrots and maybe a few ears of corn in the garden. Catchin' critters was harder than it sounded, and it wasn't like he had matches or anything to make a fire.
The church was likely to be empty on a Saturday afternoon, he reckoned. He could at least stretch out on a pew and get some sleep.