Red Beret (Excerpt)
I was driving through the most intense driving rain of a thunderstorm I had ever experienced. I was somewhere between Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee. As the storm began, I had naively thought that the ferocious eighteen-wheelers that surrounded me on the interstate would slow down a peg and show a little mercy to my relatively small Mercedes and me. If anything, the average speed of the collective 'fleet' traveling east more than slightly increased. We must have all been hydroplaning as we passed each other and splashed each other at speeds over eighty miles an hour. The gleaming chrome chariot like wheels of the monster trucks spun by me like high speed water wheels running down the mighty Mississippi. The wipers slashed furiously and the defroster pumped the warm air incessantly against the inside of the windshield so that I could continue to see the mad rains spill over everything in sight.
As I grew closer to Knoxville, I caught a break. All but one lane was closed because of construction so we were all forced to slow it down. The construction lasted the entire stretch of road around and through the Knoxville area. On the other side of that town, the rain eased up a bit and I drifted over to the right lane to not think about passing anyone for a while. It wasn't too long then that I caught sight of the junction of interstate eighty one which meant I would now be veering north and my lengthy affair with interstate route forty had come to an end. I guess it was simply the nice round number forty that had attracted me to drive across the country that way. I exited Nevada taking route ninety-three in to Arizona where I first picked up forty and drove through Flagstaff. Then I drove all the way through New Mexico past Gallup and Albuquerque and I was pushing it but I wanted to land in Oklahoma City before I pulled the covers up over my head for the first time this amazing road trip. I stopped whenever I felt like coffee and when ever I felt like food. Driving builds appetites and for whatever reason the food, even if it's Mickey D's, tastes so much better than it usually does if you're just hanging around the house. It has more meaning I guess because it's essential to be fortified so that all those miles can be safely tucked away in the rear view mirror.
The next day I finished off Oklahoma and passed through Little Rock, Arkansas on my way to Memphis, Tennessee. Actually, I veered off to Fort Smith because I saw signs that there was a field there where diamonds might be found. Probably diamond (singular) had been found but since I had been on my hot streak in Vegas, I stopped to try my luck. I had to pay something to go around there and I think they took a cut if you actually found a stone of real value but I did not. There were some interesting quartz and pieces of 'fools gold' but that was all I found. The most interesting detail was watching the faces of my fellow gem stone fanatics as they poked and prodded the ground with the most serious diamond hunting faces on. Finally, I was glad to get back on forty so as to move in to Memphis, Tennessee. I was wishing I had a CD of Chuck Berry or Johnny Rivers singing ‘Maybelline.’ I was thinking I would stop and check out Graceland but I simply wasn't in the mood to be a tourist. I was a serious traveling man. I had left Las Vegas with a lot of money when most folk leave running out of town with their tail tucked between their legs. I was actually thinking of something else between someone's legs and it was tail all right but not the kind that waved when it was glad to see me; although I enjoyed the idea of that thought because I could remember how Sara moved on me and made me crazy. I swear her scent was dancing around the inside of my car as if I had hung one of those little pine tree things on my mirror but instead of pine it was Sara. I had to moisten my lips and adjust myself in my pants.
Once on eighty-one I decided to pull off at an interesting out of the way exit and find a little motel with an adjacent diner. I could take a nice long break, stretch my legs, and fill my belly. I thought it would have been fun if all these little motels would have a gambling room attached. Casino on the Road. That's something I might have even lent my name to, 'Happy's Casinos on the Road.’ How could there be anything better than a bunch of happy people losing all their hard earned cash to an entrepreneur as 'Happy' as me? As a matter of fact in that situation if people did not call me, Happy then there was going to be big trouble. I found an exit to my liking. It emptied out on a splendid two-lane asphalt state road. Full-grown forests on either side of the road broken every so often by some deserted looking homes with small yards and too many cars parked all around the drive and elsewhere. Then a few more miles and I saw one of those generic signs for lodging, the ones with the symbol of a head resting, that the state puts up. A mile and a half up ahead, I was hoping this might be the place. I was definitely off the beaten track and the thought of a strange little room in the middle of nowhere with that odor that seemed to be associated with motel rooms wafting up my nostrils as I opened the door, was becoming more and more attractive to me. Finally, after the longest mile, I see up ahead a sign that reads Motel. Now I probably wouldn't believe this if I was reading this story but, please, you must believe me when I say that when I did pull into the parking lot the first thing I saw was a little diner, not attached to the motel like I had imagined, but almost, and then as I eased the car into a spot right near the little sign that said office, I look up to the main sign above the office and there it was. I had crossed nearly two thousand miles, searched for diamonds, passed raging eighteen wheel monsters, and consumed gallons of coffee. I had seen amazing stretches of the belly of America. I had blisters on my fingers from clenching the steering wheel through all day and all night driving sessions to land here, on the absolute fringes of Tennessee at the one destination whether knowing it or not I had probably been looking for the entire length of my life. The sign said, 'The Happy Motel.'
I had to sit for a few minutes in my car and stare at the sign. Then I would zone out and have to look at it again. The Happy Motel. I thought how was I going to sign the book? They were going to think I was nuts and call the cops. Well, I simply had to risk it or pull out of here right now and find another place. Of course, that was ridiculous. I would go in there and sign my name Happy just as big and bold as John Hancock had signed the Declaration of Independence. And they would remember me too. The woman behind the counter was the cutest old lady I had ever seen. Just the slightest fade in her radiating blue eyes. She was plump and jolly like an elf. Her hair was salt and pepper and she wore it back in a short ponytail about shoulder length. Her round face was still attractive with her wrinkles, especially around her eyes, only adding a special glow to her. She welcomed me with a big howdy.' Her voice was still sweet and strong. I told her I was from Las Vegas and was on my way to Pennsylvania to visit family. She thought it was the greatest that I was making such a long journey to visit my folks. I said yeah, that it was pretty great.
There wasn't a book to sign but just a post card and she didn't immediately look at my name because she had turned around to choose a key for me to my room. She handed me the key to room number nine and then she took a second to catch my name on the card. "Why your name is Happy," she said, breaking out into a mile wide smile, "well, haven't you found the most perfect place to rest your weary bones. I wish I could tell you my name is Happy too but it's not. It's not bad though, I think, but it does begin with an 'H'. It's Hazel. What do you think about that?"
"Hazel, it's such a pleasure to meet you and I love that you appreciate my name. I guess you could see there are a lot of jokes that come at me with a name like Happy. But to tell you the truth I'm kind of getting used to it."
"Well, Happy, you're secret is safe with me. I was never much for jokes anyway. And I guess people are always looking for a cheap laugh. If you know what I mean." She laughed. "When I was a girl I used to get a few myself. It wasn't too bad though. My grandmother used to have this bottle of witch-hazel which was good for bug bites and stuff like that so whenever she would ask me to bring it to her she would always say, 'Which Hazel do you mean?' And you know what, Mister Happy? I laughed every single time she said that to me. Gee, I haven't thought of that in years. Well, I hope your stay at the Happy motel is a pleasant one my dear. I'm so glad you were able to find us.”
The room surpassed my expectations. There was a nice size picture window in the front of the room with heavy curtains for privacy. The motel was made to look as if it was constructed like a log cabin and so this particular fragrance du jour was weighted with the woody scents. Pine, Maple, Oak, I wasn't sure exactly but my nose was in heaven. They all blended together. The head of the bed was flush with the rear wall with a nightstand on either side. On the right wall was a small desk with a lamp. The bass of the lamp was like the trunk of a tree with a few pieces of bark attached. On the wall above the bed was a still life painting of a cornucopia stuffed with fruit, walnuts and a sprig or two of flowers. On the floor was a rust colored carpet dotted with blue crescent moons. I put on the lamps on either side of the bed and the one on the desk. It was dusk. I opened the curtains as wide as they would go and then sat back on the edge of the bed and took in the view. I could see my car and the restaurant to the right of my room. I was surprised to see that there were a few cars parked out in front of the diner that I hadn't noticed before. Directly across the street was what had used to be a filling station but all the signs had been removed and the building had grown over with weeds and rust. There was one lonely gas pump but there was no hose and no handle. Almost all the paint had been weathered off the pump except for the faintest trace of a logo that I thought probably meant that it had been a Texaco station. When I was a kid I remember thinking it was cool. It was simple; it just said something like, 'look for the red star’ but on this old pump, the red star had all but disappeared.
I continued to stare out the window for a while. This was a peaceful place. The only sounds I heard were from the occasional passing car. I was beginning to think about getting something to eat. That couple of cars parked in front of the diner were joined by one more. The diner was constructed to resemble a real log cabin too but the 'logs' were painted the same rust color as my carpet. The entrance door was on the side and I could see there was a small square sign in the middle of the door window that said 'open.' Above the door jutting out on a couple of pieces of rusty iron hung a neon sign which had probably been up there from the fifties, that still worked. The orange letters spelled out ‘‘Diner.’ For a second I wished that it would have said, 'Happy's Diner,' then I would have had to asked Hazel if she would take my photo as I stood under the sign. Which would have undoubtedly led me to create a website where I could upload all the photos from my cross-country road trip. The only real hang up there was that there were no pictures of my cross-country road trip. I always hated the way the camera would catch me. I looked like a fugitive or more correctly a refugee, who had been chased all night long by bands of wandering vigilantes.
I could hear the pack of dogs gaining ground on me. The hill in front of me was steep and razor slick from all the recent rain. The brush was thick and tore at my already shredded shirt and pants as I scraped and clawed for every new foot of ground. Up ahead maybe twenty-five yards, I saw a stream. As I drew closer I could see that it was more of a creek and it was moving really fast and was swollen because of the huge storm last night. I quickly realized that I had to get myself downstream, get myself in the water so that hopefully the dogs would lose my scent. Maybe there was another choice but I could only think of this one so I dove into the rapid flow. The current was as mighty as it appeared and I was moving down steam very fast. I managed to keep my head above the water for the most part and fortunately, there were no major rocks or logs that could have done real damage to me. I was swimming. The water wasn't freezing but I had been in warmer. After what seemed like days adrift but what could have only been thirty minutes at most, my muscles began to ache and scream. Up ahead I could see an over pass and beyond that it was looking like the creek was more narrow. Soon after I passed under the over pass I was able to move to the left bank and grab hold of a tree branch that was sticking out over the water. I stopped moving. What a moment. My entire body went limp from sheer exhaustion. I could not move. I didn't want to. I could hear no dogs on my trail only the rush of waters that still surrounded me. Finally I was able to pull myself out of the soup. I lay there on the shore, shivering like a frightened child.
My mind wouldn't stop replaying that moment from last night when I saw the fire leap from the end of the pistol. That crack still echoed in my ears because the sound and flash tied themselves inextricably to the same moment I saw her body fall heavy to the ground. I wasn't a killer. Who was going to believe that if I had not wrestled the gun away from her that she would have killed me. There was a guy in a red flannel shirt that had warned me about her temper and that she was the daughter of the sheriff or mayor.. I had just walked in the diner from driving all night. I had probably taken one too many white cross uppers and was strung out from the road but when I saw the lights up ahead something in me made me pull that Chevy wagon right into that parking lot. It was about ten o'clock and hadn't started to rain yet. I met a man in the Texas panhandle that needed to get this wagon over to Fort Smith, Arkansas. I didn't know anything about him and he didn't tell me anything except the address in Arkansas where I was to drop off the car. He gave me five hundred dollars in twenty-dollar bills and then pulled away in his Ford pick up truck. I could have left that Chevy right there on the street and walked off with that money but instead I got into the damn thing and took off out of Texas. I told myself there must be many kilos of dope packed in this wagon somewhere and that the value of this old heap, albeit a classic nineteen fifty eight Chevy wagon, couldn't be anymore than the five hundred he gave me because it was all beat up and rusted. The inside wasn't as bad as the outside but it was definitely a heap except the radio worked like a charm.
So I walk into the diner and sit at the counter. I'm too jittery from the pills for a cup of coffee so I order a coke. Then I decide since I'm in a joint where there's some food I might as well have something so I order a burger and fries. I guess I'm a little dirty or something because a couple of the gents in there look at me a little funny. I ignore them and then the girl brings my food. I'm minding my own business when the door opens and this red head waltzes in wearing the tightest damn blue jeans on a woman I had ever seen. I couldn't help but take all of her in my sights. So now, I'm waiting for the boyfriend to come in or her daddy or whoever must be with this flaming beauty but there's no one else and that's when one of the guys who had been staring at me, the one with the red flannel shirt comes over and sits right next to me at the counter and kind of whispers to me, "Don't get any ideas about this one. She is trouble with a capital 'T.' Not only that but her daddy more or less runs this town so if I were you I'd finish up that burger and haul you some ass back in that beat up wagon you drove in on." Before I could say anything, he sauntered back to his table where his two buddies were tossing back their Budweisers. Now my gut told me that mister flannel shirt there had probably given me some solid gold advice and I intended to take advantage of my good fortune and clear out of Dodge. Suddenly the burger didn't taste as good as it used to so I drained my coke and figured I better drain something else before I go back in that Chevy and drive. When i came out of the bathroom the waitress was saying something to the short order cook about me not having paid my check. I said, "I was just in the john, I didn't walk out without paying. I'm going to pay right now." "That's right," somebody said. And that's when the red head comes up to me and says, "Don't pay them any mind, sit back down and I'll buy you a beer." And she's standing in the way of the door and I for sure ain't gonna touch her. So, even though my belly is beginning to do it's nervous dance, I say sure, and she sits down at the counter with me while the cook pops the caps off a couple of Buds. I decide I'll let her do all the talking.
"I'm a big fan of those classic Chevrolets, you know. My daddy owns a fifty-five, a fifty-six, and my very favorite the fifty-seven Bel-Air. You know about those fifty sevens mister?"
"Sure, those are the classics of the classics, I'd say."
"And you know what mister, you would be so right in saying that." She paused for a second and then as if she had commited a mortal sin, “ my goodness, mister, here I am putting a bend on your ear and I don't even know your name. Mine's Hannah."
"I'm pleased to meet you Hannah," and before I could come up with something else, it just came out, "my name's Happy." Well, that was almost all the ammunition she was gonna need.
"Happy, well hell, that's a nifty fucking name there Happy old pal,” and then she went for some support from the guys in the corner. "Ain't that just a nifty fucking name fellas"? They all sat there and giggled like school kids. "Yep, this sure is my lucky day meeting you mister Happy. The reason I feel so damn lucky is that I want to buy that old Chevy wagon from you. I don't have a fifty- eight and here you pull right on in to my favorite spot in this whole shit hole of a town driving the fifty -eight that I've been dreaming of for a long, long time. I'm ready to offer you a real good deal too."
"I do really appreciate that you're a big fan of Chevy's cause I am too. But the thing is," and here I knew I was probably digging my grave, "the thing is that it's not my car. I'm delivering it to someone. I made a deal."
"Oh, Happy, you can't go around disappointing all the pretty ladies you meet. You think I'm pretty, don't you? You don't even have to answer that 'cause I can see it in your eyes that you think I'm one of the damn prettiest gals you ever laid eyes on, right Happy?! Now tell me I'm wrong."
Now I hoped I was getting out of the hole some. "I can say you are the prettiest girl I have ever seen, Hannah.”
"What I'd tell you boys, he thinks I'm not only one of the prettiest, but the prettiest girl he's ever seen. That's why I like this man called Happy. I like this man and since I like you mister Happy I'm gonna give you a chance to keep that fifty eight and make your damn delivery even though if I lose, you're gonna have one big ol' disappointed Hannah on your hands."
During this last exchange, her pals left their table and have now made a kind of semi circle around me and Hannah. I've now totally convinced my self that I am screwed. I know they want to beat the shit out of me or worse and I'll lay there in the gutter, if there is a gutter, bleeding from both ends as they all drive off in my Chevy wagon. So now Hannah says to the cook, "Frankie, do me a favor and grab me my gun from under the counter there. You see mister Happy, we're going to play a game. In this game, you gotta have a good eye and a steady hand. You think you can play this game with me? Hell, I know you can play this game. Right, mister Happy? Come on, let's go outside."
My throat is dry and useless so I just nod as I'm more or less moved out the door by my three gentlemen escorts. One of them grabs two empty bottles of Budweiser and walks to the end of the parking lot and sets them on the top of a post; side by side. Hannah is checking the pistol to see if it's loaded. She fires one shot into the air. "Hear that Happy? That means the games have begun. You see those two Bud bottles over there? Well the way we play this is you have to get both of 'em with one shot. But before we start I want you fellas to give Happy and me just a little privacy. I got to explain something personal to him."
The three guys walk back to the rear of the diner, out of earshot, while Hannah puts her arm around me and draws me close. "Now look you little son of a bitch even if you're good with this gun you're not gonna win. Nobody ever beats me. My daddy always told me that good girls get what they want and this situation is no different from any other one. You gettin' my drift mister Happy?"
Then she looks into my eyes with such delight like a demon might just before she slits your throat and puts the barrel of the gun, after she licks it, and slides it into my mouth and pulls back the hammer. I am stunned and she says to me, with those eyes on fire, "Are you Happy now?" Then she begins to laugh at her own joke, in that moment, I come back to life and tear the gun out of my mouth, and she is taken back for a second. Immediately my hands fly at the revolver and I'm able to rip the gun out of her hands. In that second I get the pistol turned around and my finger instinctively lands directly on the trigger and the shot goes off tearing the entire left side of Hannah's face from her head. Her three pals are staring at what's left of Hannah as I take off down through the back of the parking lot and into the woods.