Red Beret (Excerpt)
My belly growled. It was dark and the orange neon Diner sign glowed like a beacon. I went into my bathroom and washed my face and hands. I had to unwrap the complimentary cake of soap. On the wrapper, it said 'Compliments of the Happy Motel.' After I dried my face and hands, I carefully folded up the wrapper and put it in my wallet. I stepped outside my room, the brisk night air was refreshing and so I took a couple of very deep breaths that made me feel more a part of this particular microcosm. Then, with just the slightest taste of trepidation, I opened the door to the diner. Patsy Cline was singing 'Crazy.' There was a family of four at one table, Mom and Dad and two little girls; at the counter, were a teenage couple eating fries and drinking some cokes. No one was directing me to a table so I took the deuce next to the big window in the front. While I waited for my menu, I saw Hazel come in to say something to the girl behind the counter. She saw me on the way out and waved and said, "Hi, Mister Williams," I said, "Thanks Hazel." She smiled at me again and went out, then the waitress brought over the menu. We said hello to each other and she told me there was one remaining special that was, 'just delish,' as she put it. It was a broiled filet of sole with yellow wax beans and it came with both a soup and salad for ten ninety-five. I told her she was a great sales person and that I would have the sole. She said I wouldn't be sorry and she was right. I cleaned off my plate. Even the iceberg lettuce that dominated my salad had a good taste to it. I finished things off with a cup of coffee that was very bitter which meant there was chicory in the blend but I did not complain. I paid my bill and gave the waitress a ten dollar tip. She thanked me profusely. I asked her then what you folks do around her for fun? She told me that the church put up a Bingo game every Saturday night but that tonight was Wednesday so she had to think for a minute. While she did that I looked to see if there were any flyers posted somewhere or some kind of sign for something. I couldn't find anything. I looked back at her and the second I did she remembered, "Oh, if you drive up the road just a tiny much on the left side of the road you'll find a bowling alley. And I think, tonight, they're open late; until about eleven o'clock!
I thanked her and she thanked me, again, and so I walked over to my many horse powered vehicle and slid in behind the wheel. "Bowling?" I said out loud. Well, it was that or TV in the room until bed, so I decided the most interesting thing to do was to go toss a few balls. At the bowling alley I walked into a time zone as if the fifties had never faded. Maybe it was just that they had two pinball machines that weren't loaded with electronic sounds. Or maybe the AMF pin spotters and bowling pins and the sound they make when they fall down sounded like the fifties to me. I always felt I had a connection to that era somehow. Maybe it had to do with the state of Tennessee. This part of the country more than other places I'd been could be the 'heart' of this country. I know Tennessee is known as being the heart of Country music. I mean there was Nashville and Memphis. Now I was sorry that I didn't take the time to stop in Memphis and see the sights at Graceland. Elvis was born as a star in the fifties and made all those great recordings at Sun Records with Sam Phillips. I remember someone droping off an Elvis biography one night at the Danport Storage Bin and I ended up reading the entire volume in one night. Danport Storage Bin? What did that have to do with anything? Oh yeah, that's where I met Sara. What is the point of this trip anyway? See the USA, in your Chevrolet, I think it was Dinah Shore. She sold Chevrolets on the Dinah Shore Show. Say that five times really fast. I was content with my Mercedes. It purred and could probably shut down any Chevy they could throw at me around these parts.
There were twelve lanes half of them had bowlers. They put me at lane ten, which was right next to lane nine. I rented some shoes then dropped my jacket on a seat next to number ten and went in search of my ball. I was partial to red or black but I found one of those shiny blue numbers that felt like a winner. For a second I was ready to place my bet. There were two kids bowling in number nine next to me about twenty years old. A guy and a girl. She was cursing like there was no tomorrow and she was beating him. He was throwing open frame after open frame but wasn't saying much of anything, at least anything I could hear. I started off with a spare as I was able to pick off the seven pin on the second toss. The next frame I threw a gutter ball and then knocked nine down, so much for my spare. Then I saw that some people were drinking beer so I went over and picked one up for myself. A local brand, I forget the name. When I got back to my spot I heard the girl in the next lane say, "You redneck asshole, you don't even care about this fucking bowling game do you? It's just a goddamn joke to you like your whole fucking family. Look at that score up there. I'm wiping your ass, fucker. Ain't you got no ambition? Christ's sake let your girl beat up on you every time at bowling." Then she placed her ball down on the whatever it is there, and walked up and got in his face and just plain screamed, "what the fuck is wrong with you??!!" I think he must have been used to such shenanigans because he just looked at her like she was a bad little kid and didn't say a word to her. Then he moved away from her picked up his ball and threw a perfect strike. Before the ball came back up on the return he had grabbed his jacket, flashed her the bird and walked right out of that bowling alley. Down at the other end of the alley I heard a smattering of applause. I had been doing my best acting job pretending I hadn't heard or seen any of these activities that were right next door to me. However, I guess she had sensed I wasn't doing a very good job because the next thing she did was walk right up to me, as she had her assumed boy friend and then let me have it. "And you, stranger, you mind your own fucking business if you know what's good for you!"
"Look," I said, "I'm just bowling my game. That's my business."
"Well, see that it is, asshole."
I turn away from her hoping that after I throw this ball and turn around that she will be gone. I get my wish. I finish my game without any other incidents. Now I'm trying to decide if I want to have even more fun by bowling another game. Meanwhile three big bruisers move into lane number nine all with the same bowling shirt on, black with white piping. On the front of the shirts are the initials BFS and on the back it's spelled out. Bowling For Satan and under that in a bowling pin font, if you can believe that, are the numerals six six six. Hooray, I yelled in my head, there will be no second game here tonight or ever in my life! I hurried up to change my shoes. I did not look over there again. I grabbed my jacket and ball and put it back on the nearby rack. When I returned my shoes, I asked the attendant if the girl that screamed did that very often. He said that, yes, she did but that I should just forget about the whole affair. I assured him that was exactly what I was going to do, with that, he turned around and lit a cigarette.
I slid in behind the wheel of my machine and breathed a sigh of relief. Actually I hadn't been bowling all that bad. I rolled a one fifty five, which was as good a game as I had ever played. For a second I flashed on Sara and me at the Bowling alley and she cursing at me 'cause I was so lousy. I backed the car out of my space and was just ready to peel out when the screaming bowling girl comes running up to my car with a baseball bat and begins to whack at my Mercedes. I can feel the power of her strikes on the inside of the car. Never a cop when you need one. But with that bat swinging out there and me in my car and those three guys in there who are probably all related, I screech out of the lot and back towards the Happy Motel. I didn't have a good feeling about any of this. I pulled into my spot at room number nine and got out of the car to assess the damage. Not too bad, but she had popped one headlight and banged up the fender on the driver's side, my new car. I could feel anger brewing in my gut. What, she had gone outside and waited for me to come out? Was she sitting across the road caressing the bat imagining all the harm she could inflict on me? Why wasn't life simpler? It was once, wasn't it? Well, it wasn't too late. I could go get back on the highway and find another place or just keep driving all night if I wanted to. Now I'm thinking about what to do next when I hear the sound of someone running. I turn and see it is the girl with the baseball bat. I look quickly around to see if there is anything I can pick up to defend myself against her but too late. She rushes right on up to me and throws the bat down and hugs me as if I'm her long lost daddy; and she is crying. "I am so sorry I lost it on you mister. I had a real bad day. My brother, the guy bowling with me, well, I took him over there to cheer him up 'cause he was diagnosed with some lethal liver disease, but he just wouldn't have no fun. He usually gets a big kick out of me when I curse at him and make a scene in public. He likes that kind of thing but I guess he was just too damn fucking depressed about what the doctor had told him. It's his own fault too. He has friends that have this moonshine still and they would sit around and drink that shit every day and every night. You ever have moonshine? Well, forget about it because it's too damn powerful and it'll hook ya. That's what happened to my brother. His name is Charlie. Only thirty years old and he's gone and pickled his liver. I don't even like to say them words 'cause my stomach starts to roll over and I'm afraid I'm gonna puke or something." Then she noticed the broken headlight and assorted other damage that she had inflicted. "Mister, I am so sorry I lost it on you. I can give you twenty dollars to help pay for repairs?"
I looked at this face. What a transformation. The venom had drained from her eyes and demeanor. Before she was a raging demon with flames nearly singing my face as she spit her words at me and now, a tender, concerned, upset but entirely rational woman. Her hair was short like a boy's but she was one hundred percent girl. I could now see that her face, when not in a flying rage, was actually delicate, smooth and (I couldn't believe this word had popped into my head) attractive. At that moment I realized I still had not said one word to her since she ran up.
"I'm sorry about your brother," I managed to squeak out. My voice suddenly felt weak and tired and I felt like I needed a shot of whiskey.
"Oh, I see you met Samantha," a third voice chimed in. It was Hazel. She had been in the office and noticed that Samantha was chatting up her guest. Now she sees the baseball bat on the ground not too far from Samantha's feet then she notices the smashed in headlight. "What did you do to Mister Williams car, young lady? Did you do this to his car?"
"Yes, but it was an accident, I swear to god, Hazel. My brother's dying and I had to strike out at something or somebody and this here stranger just got in my way. I came over here to apologize. Didn't I mister?"
"It's true Hazel, but before that I thought she just might crush my skull with that nasty bat of hers'."
"I'd of never done that mister."
"Well you didn't see what I saw in those eyes. It sure looked like 'crush skull' to me."
"Now you listen to me Samantha Greenwell, you stay away from my paying customers. This nice man is just passing through and doesn't need to be dragged into the murky waters of your life and that brother of yours. Did you meet Charlie as well, Mister Williams. Charlie and his cohorts are known in these parts as the town drunks. Although it seems to me they never cause as much ruckus as this one young woman right here. I'm sorry this had to happen to you Mister Williams. Should I call the police?"
"Don't you dare call the police, Hazel. We're working this out aren't we Mister Williams?"
Hazel said, "It's up to my guest here. It does appear that you owe the man some money."
For that one second when Samantha answered Hazel I swear I saw that fire pop back into her eyes.
"I don't want to call the police in on this Hazel. My insurance will cover these damages. But thank you."
Hazel went back inside. I looked at Samantha and she looked at me. My gut was telling me something and that something was that I needed to talk to this girl. The fact that she could move from one extreme to another and had moved me from fear and hate to utter fascination only intrigued me more. I decided the right thing for me to do right now would be to have a conversation with her. I still wanted that drink but because of the tenor of the situation and the brother, I suggested we go to the diner for some coffee. Low and behold, she thought that was a good idea.
Things were slow inside but the place felt somehow cheerful to me and I was damn glad. I was thinking her looks were probably not the only thing about her that was delicate. I think the correct term is 'hair trigger.’ As soon as the waitress brought our coffees over Samantha began. Her father had been a coal miner and had developed the miner's nightmare or black lung. Samantha said she could barely sleep at night as a kid because of her father's incessant coughing. He was a good dad too she said but a workaholic because of the money. I learned there were three kids. Samantha was the middle one and Charlie was the first. Another sister was born when Charlie and Samantha were teenagers but when the child was still an infant, the father, Moses, had died and money was so tight that little Ashley, was sent to live with her aunt, who was the mother's sister. Samantha's mother was Naomi. Naomi was the major influence on her daughter. "My mother loved me." Samantha must have told me that a hundred times during our talk. She loved Charlie too but the mother-daughter connection is a stronger bond. Naomi also more than anything wanted to help her husband bring money into the household. For a while, she would crochet quilts and sweaters and sell them at the flea market. She made dolls for weddings and even tried her hand at painting. But it was never enough money. One hard winter Naomi came down with a case of pneumonia. Moses took her to the county hospital and the first thing they did for her was to put her on painkillers; she was never the same after that. The pneumonia eventually cleared but her taste for the painkillers had grown into a full-blown addiction. After the prescriptions ran out she discovered that some of the men that Moses worked with were also addicts and had access to the drugs she wanted. The little money that she had been making on her crafts was not enough to cover her new expenditures. Moses' money went for food and the rent but now a portion of that had also been siphoned off to help Naomi feed her habit.
Samantha said that she thought Charlie never even saw what was happening to their mother because once he turned thirteen he started drinking. At first just for kicks but later because it was the only way he could fall asleep with his father coughing. Samantha noticed the subtle changes that were taking place in Naomi. She no longer had time for conversation with her children. The household chores Samantha began to cover for her mother. Naomi had always liked to cook but now never had the time to prepare something fresh like she used to enjoy. She bought, and now more often than not shoplifted, packaged meats and whatever small items she was able to stuff into her coat pockets. Samantha remembered one week the cupboard being naked as a jaybird because the food store manager had caught Naomi with stuff in her pockets. Instead of arresting her, he made her swear not to show her face in the store for two weeks or until she made good for the things she had taken. With no access to the store there was no food coming into the house. Charlie and or Samantha could have done the shopping but they had no money and buying on credit was unheard of. It was cash or nothing. Eventually the store debt was paid off but now only Samantha was allowed to shop there for food.
Samantha did not take any of the drugs. As she observed the more and more unpredictable mood swings of her mother she grew frightened of her. She saw Charlie drinking more heavily too. The only 'luck' that Charlie had was that he didn't have to pay for his drinks. His best friend’s father who made the ‘medicine’ promoted his habit. The 'medicine' was generally, what the adults drank in this town so there was always a stream of money going there and since there was always more where that came from Charlie and his friend never had to beg for a drink. One real bad night Charlie was drunk, Naomi was stoned and Moses had come home early because someone's shovel had come down on his foot and he was in pain and coughing. Naomi slipped up and offered her husband some relief in the form of her pills. Moses would never even take an aspirin. He began to quiz her on where and how she could afford pills like those. Naomi immediately became defensive and told him it was none of his business. Moses couldn't believe his wife had raised her voice to him and in the throes of pain slapped her hard across the mouth. Charlie couldn't believe that he had just seen his father strike his mother so he went at his father and butted him in the gut with his head. Moses went down and hit his head on the hard linoleum floor. Naomi screamed. Charlie became sick to his stomach and all the ‘medicine’ spewed across the kitchen floor and on Moses. Samantha had been sewing a button on a shirt when the chaos erupted. After Naomi screamed a second time Samantha jumped and accidentally drove the needle into her finger. She ran into the kitchen and yelled and screamed calling her family the worst she could think of. "It came out of me like lava from a volcano. I screamed and belched my fucking curses until I had no breath left. Then I ran out of the house and down the street to the one girl in school that talked to me. I told her a lame story about my family being out for the night. Whether she believed me or not did not matter because she asked her folks and they said it was ok for me to stay over if that's what I wanted to do. I had never wanted to do something so much in my life."
The waitress came by with the coffee pot but told us they were gonna be closing soon. She filled our cups and gave us a wink. "That was the night that changed my life." She stared out the window into the mostly dark road. "It wasn't long after that night that my Dad went into the hospital and never came out. I think it was my dad's funeral that put my mom over the edge. His absence turned out to be poison and a prison for her. I think she may have even given up on her pills but it was too late. If I could have only found a pill for her grief I would have sold myself to pay for it. I would have done anything to save my mom. I saw her sliding away and I saw myself as a huge failure. I was useless; couldn't do anything but tell her I loved her and cry." Samantha turned to look me in the eyes. "So Charlie and I share the house and now he's sick too. Sometimes I lose my mind."
The first thing I thought of was that thank god she had not asked me my name. I would have had to become Dakota again or something. I wanted to take her in my arms and say that everything was going to be all right. If I had had a pill I could have given her to forget then I would have done that. Unfortunately, I had no magic pills or potions. I did have some money. Shit. Is that what this is all about? We did stare into each other's eyes and it was then I decided I didn't even care if all she wanted was money. She had never had any. She was skinny and I wondered if she even had enough food to eat. The waitress blew her nose. I said we should go. On the way out I gave five bucks to our waitress. She liked it.
Outside was quiet as a mouse. The wind stirred the hair that just covered her ear. "Do you mind if we go to your room for a little while? I don't think I can face going back to the house right now."
"What about your brother? Will he wonder what happened to you? Do you need to call him?"
She assured me that Charlie would not lose any sleep over his sister's whereabouts. As we walked over to number nine she took my hand. I opened the door and switched on the light. The dark wood tones were warm and comfortable. The bed looked inviting. We never made it there. She began tearing at my clothes the moment the door was shut. She even peeled my socks off as she wiggled out of her tight blue jeans. Her body was hard and firm, not an ounce of fat anywhere. She told me she was on the pill. She told me she had never made love with a man. She told me she was a lesbian but that lately all she could think about was cock and how she fantasized about how it was going to be when there was one actually sliding in and out of her. She told me her girlfriend would 'fist' her but lately that was only making the ache deep inside of her worse and she couldn't orgasm. She kissed me and bit my tongue hard. Next she gets on all fours and has me ram her from the back with all my might and she is cursing at me and calling me a cunt fag. I laughed. " What the fuck is a cunt fag?"
"You are, Mister fucker." And then we did make it to the bed and while I'm thrusting she lifts herself off of the bed so she's kind of floating while I'm fucking her. Her arms locked around me. I can't believe how strong she is. I imagine Hazel sitting in her office with the hidden camera now switched on as she zooms in on the action and slips her fingers up under her dress. Now when I slide out of Samantha she takes my head and stuffs it between her legs and her juice is all over me. No sooner does my tongue touch her clit but does she roar like a lioness. Nothing high pitched about this one and I have her come again and again and again. No sooner had she caught her breath then she had all of me in her mouth. Then it was my turn to roar and I did and she shook all over and finished me off. I had to catch my breath. I was holding her now and she was kissing me and as I stopped to say how amazing she was I saw her eyes glaze over and she was dead.
The cops questioned me and the brother threatened to kill me but there was no evidence of foul play and so there were no charges brought against me. Besides Hazel came to my defense and told the police that I was a good man which ordinarily might not mean so much somewhere else but in this little town her word was gold. Charlie's attempts to make me out a murderer just went down the drain because he was always drunk. I guess nobody ever believed a word he said and that was good for me. The autopsy showed Samantha’s heart had quit because of a blockage in the brain. Because of the investigation, I had to remain in town for a week but I was fine with that because I covered the funeral expenses. Samantha and Charlie lived from day to day on the little money their mother received from the state. Hazel suggested that I not attend the funeral because even though my name was clear Charlie would be gunning for me and she thought Samantha's mother might join that party too. So I laid low and nursed my own psychic wounds from the cruel way Samantha had come into my life and the even crueler way she was taken away. I also had the headlight and the fender repaired on my car. The day of the funeral the authorities lifted the ban on my leaving town so I made my farewell with Hazel and rode out of Tennessee forever.
Driving back on the highway I could feel that my heart would never be the same again either. I was obsessed with the thought that Samantha was probably the girl with the red beret. The red beret must have a meaning that I still have not figured. She did not wear one but she flashed into my life like those early sightings and then just as suddenly vanished and then I thought of those couple of times we intently stared into each other's eyes. Once in the parking lot and then again once in the diner. But what was it that I was seeing? I did not see a red beret flash inside her eyes. What color were her eyes? Pale blue, pale green, I wasn't sure anymore. But her face was crystal clear especially in two moments. The moment that she breathed fire and attacked me in the parking lot and then the opposite friendly fire as she attacked me in the motel room. She was only twenty years old but had seen her share of the hard life. I made many attempts to explain to myself why she ever had bothered with me at all. The only idea that made any sense to me was that I was a stranger in her world and she was looking for something new, looking for a way out of her pain and frustration. I could also say that she was totally nuts and violence was the only emotion that made the world a tolerable place for her. But all that was just speculation and I could not dwell in that house of cards for very long. The truth is I was madly missing her and didn't know what to do about it. I pushed down harder on the accelerator and passed a long, long line of speeding tractor-trailers.