Friday, October 7, 2011

Chapter 29

Richie took a deep breath as he paused inside the doorway, looking around for signs of life.  It was 7:10 a.m. and Eddie’s Texaco was obviously open for business, one of the twin roll-up doors raised and lights burning in the garage bay.  But the kindly proprietor was nowhere in sight.

Richie scrubbed his hands over his stubbly cheeks, trying to make himself fully alert.  He had gotten only a few hours of sleep before Annie roused him to begin their day.  He cleared his dry throat before raspily announcing his presence.

“Eddie? You here?”

A moment later he heard the big man’s muffled voice, sounding from the little bathroom in back of the bay.

“Yeah. That you, Richie?”

“Yes Sir.” 

“Hang on.  I’ll be out in a minute.”

Richie shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and wandered over to the tool bench against the wall.  There he noticed a medium-sized cardboard box, one bottom corner smashed in and its top flaps angled open.  The black print on the side of the kraft cardboard confirmed Richie’s suspicion.  It was the new thermostat for his Impala.

Pushing aside the cardboard flaps, Richie stared into the box.  The part was new, its shiny metal glinting with a light sheen of oil.  Richie felt a stab of dread in the pit of his stomach as he regarded the little gadget, wondering how much much its installation would cost.  He muttered a silent prayer that this was the only problem in the Impala’s greasy, worn engine.  If this part wasn’t the fix, a more extensive repair could cost him much, much more.

During his morning shower Richie had realized today was the day he would have to come up with some means of financing the Impala’s repair.  The weekend’s events had pushed his money worries to the back of his mind.  But the weekend was over, and now he had to face reality.

While Annabelle was dressing Richie had dug through his rucksack, looking for his checkbook.  When he flipped through the tattered register his heart sank.  He had only thirty-six dollars in his account, and maybe twenty dollars and change in his pocket.  That was all he had to his name. 

He was pretty sure the Impala’s repair would cost far more than that.

Over his coffee Richie had pondered what to tell Eddie about his financial situation, and how to make some quick cash to settle his debt.   He didn’t think the little town of Darien had a pawn shop, and he didn’t really have anything of value to sell anyway.  His guitar and his car were his only possessions worth anything, and only one of them was in working order.

A lump formed in Richie’s throat at the idea of pawning his guitar.  He just couldn’t do that, not now.  Not when the music was finally coming back to him.

For a fleeting moment Richie considered the possibility of using his talent to earn some cash.  After all, he had been able to scratch out a living in Memphis playing his guitar.  But this wasn’t Memphis; Darien didn’t have any nightclubs or music halls where he could play for tip money.  The only places where music was played here seemed to be a backwater Juke Joint and Church.  There wasn’t even really a place for him to busk on the three-block-long main street.  In this little town, his talent was basically useless.

By the time Annie was ready to drive them to town, he had nothing.  As he sat silent in the passenger seat of the old pickup truck, Richie decided he would have to wait and see how things went.  Maybe once he knew what kind of money he would have to come up with, an idea would present itself to him.

The only thing that had kept Richie from slipping into despair this morning was Annie.  He awakened to find her smiling down on him like the angel he knew her to be.  She had kissed him good morning, given him a cup of coffee, then curled against him on the porch swing to watch the sunrise before reluctantly slipping away to shower and dress for her shift at the restaurant. 

Sweet memories of their previous night’s passion made Richie smile despite his worry.  She was his salvation, no matter what happened.  As long as he was with Annie, everything would be alright.

Richie heard a door creak open, followed by the whoosh of a flushing toilet.  Eddie emerged from the washroom, drying his hands on a dingy red shop rag.  He was dressed exactly as he had been when Richie had last seen him here, in faded, grease-stained blue coveralls and scuffed work boots.

“Mornin’ Son.” 

“Mornin’ Sir.”  Richie pulled his hands from his jeans pockets as he turned to face the big mechanic.  He reached out to accept Eddie’s damp hand, extended in greeting.

“You have a nice Sunday?”

Richie nodded, a small smile curving his mouth.  “Yeah.  You?”

“Sure did.   Nice and quiet.”   Eddie gave Richie an appraising look.  “You and Annabelle didn’t stick around too long at the potluck.  She take you someplace?”

“No.  Just back to her house.” Richie shuffled his feet as he flinched under Eddie’s ill-disguised interrogation.  “She had chores to take care of, so I just helped out.  Mowed the yard, worked in the garden.”

Eddie snorted a quiet chuckle.  “So much for Sunday as a day of rest, huh?  Marlene had me pullin’ out bushes and weedin' her flower beds all afternoon too.”  He stuffed the rag in his pocket and clapped Richie on the shoulder.  “Well, now it’s back-to-work time.  Let’s see about gettin’ you back on the road North.”

Richie tried to muster a grateful smile as his heart throbbed dully at Eddie’s declaration.  For some strange reason he felt almost guilty that he wasn’t planning to head back to Jersey when his car was fixed, as he had promised on Saturday. 

Richie remembered Eddie’s gentle warning, when they had sat in his office and had their man-to man talk.  Think twice about Annabelle before leaving her lonely.  Well, he wasn’t planning to leave her at all.  He was going to start a new life here in Darien, with her. 

Richie's smile faded.  He had been bursting with excitement yesterday, at the idea of spending every day and night with Annie.  But now his happiness felt somehow hollow, like a compromise.

“Go ahead and pop the hood.”  Eddie waved a hand in the direction of the Impala, which was parked on the pavement apron outside the garage.  “We should be able to fix ‘er without havin’ to get 'er up on the lift.”

“Okay.”  Richie nodded and turned to look at the beat-up sedan.  A little sigh escaped from him as he regarded the old car.

“Son… Things okay?”

The note of kind concern in Eddie’s voice made Richie look back at him in surprise.
“Huh?  Umm… yeah, I guess.  Why?”  He hoped he didn’t sound worried as the image of his pathetic checkbook register flashed in his mind.

“You just look like you got somethin’ on your mind, is all.” Eddie gave Richie a fatherly smile. “A girl, maybe?”

His allusion to Annie made the corners of Richie’s mouth twitch slightly upward, a tiny motion that wasn’t lost on Eddie. 

“Nah.  All good.”

“Well, okay then.  Let’s get to work.”

Annie swiped the cloth absently across the counter as she gazed out the plate-glass window.  A little smile curved her lips as she watched the two men ducked under the Impala’s raised hood, working together on the day’s task.

Eddie was clearly explaining the internal combustion engine’s workings to Richie, his lecture apparent from his animated hand gestures.  Richie watched and nodded along, his dark hair swinging with the motion.  But his body language betrayed his inattention.  He shifted from one foot to the other, then finally stepped back and stood upright.  Richie glanced toward the little diner across the street as he raised a hand to swipe back his shaggy bangs from his face.

Annie’s lips pursed thoughtfully as she wondered what was on Richie’s mind.  This morning he hadn’t seemed himself; at least not like the Richie she had come to know over the course of the weekend.  He also hadn’t seemed to have reverted to the haunted sadness he had carried into town with him. 

Today was different.  He was different.

Something had changed.

Annie shook her head slowly, trying to clear away a shadow of worry.  The answer was as obvious as it was unwelcome.  What was different wasn’t Richie… it was Them.

Annabelle had felt a connection with the handsome young stranger the moment he first flashed his shy smile. Their bond had quickly grown as they recognized in each other kindred spirits and mutual desire.  This weekend they had shared more than just a bed.  They had shared dreams, hopes, truths, and fears.  Passion and pain.  Hearts and souls. 

They had shared each other.  Fully.

He had told her he loved her.

And then he didn’t.

Something had changed.

Annie’s gaze followed Richie as he turned to face Tillie’s front window.  He gave her a little half-smile and a brief wave before striding into the shadows of the garage bay.  Annie smiled in response to the gesture but didn’t move.  She just continued to wipe at the grey formica as her thoughts continued to swirl.

Last night had been special.  What she and Richie shared was so deeply intimate, in more ways than one.  She let go of her inhibitions and trusted him to please her in a way she had never allowed any other man.  He had shared with her something special and personal of his own… his music.

His music.  It was beautiful.  Soulful, touching… even elegant.  And he had thanked her for bringing it back to him.

After their lovemaking she had lain awake and listened to him softly singing and playing on her front porch, just outside her bedroom window.  She didn’t recognize any of the words or melodies or chords… they were rough and new, born of the night.  It was as if she was listening to Richie’s soul whisper through his guitar, sharing his secrets with the moonlight.

For nearly an hour she waited for Richie to come back to her bed, to hold her and share in her contentment.  But he kept playing.  Finally she had fallen asleep to the lullaby of guitar strings and his soft croon.

Yes, something had definitely changed.  For both of them.

“I think that spot’s clean there, Missy.”

Tillie’s calm observation startled Annie from her contemplation.  Looking down at the tepid rag in her hand, Annie chortled quietly.  “Is it?”

Tillie brushed past Annabelle to deposit a stack of freshly-washed plastic tumblers under the counter.  “Eddie’s gettin’ Richie’s car up and runnin’?”

Annie tossed the rag aside.  “Suppose so.  Chick Newton brought the part they were waitin’ on over Saturday, right about closin’ time.”

“Mmm.”  Tillie straightened and gave Annabelle a long once-over.  “And did he have a nice time prayin’ at church with you yesterday?”

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Annie nodded.  “Yes, Ma’am, he did.  As you know very well.  I’m sure Miss Adeline filled you in at your Sunday card game.”  She arched a brow at the older woman, waiting for the questions to come.  She had no doubt speculation about her and Richie’s weekend activities had been the hot topic at the Darien Ladies’ Bridge Club.

“And how ‘bout after church?  You two didn’t stay to help clean up after lunch.”  Tillie gave Annie a direct look.  “Guess you had somewhere to go?”

“We went home.  I had my chores to do.  And Richie was getting’ tired of everybody starin’ at him and whisperin’ behind his back.”  Annabelle planted her hands on her hips and gave Tillie a defiant little smirk.

“Well, can’t blame folks.”  Tillie wiped her hands on her apron.  “You two givin’ ‘em plenty to talk about, apparently.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Tillie moved past Annie, toward the coffee pot.  “Well, it ain’t like you two were home watchin’ the TV on Saturday night.”  She slid a cup and saucer from the line at the back of the counter and picked up the pot.  She slowly poured a cup, then turned to give her God-daughter a questioning look.

“Yeah, so?  We went to Ruby Mae’s.  You know I go there on Saturday nights.”  Annie waited for Tillie’s disapproving response, but none came.  “What’s so interestin’ about that, that’s got the town all buzzin’?”

Tillie took a sip of her coffee before calmly replying.  “You don’t usually go there with some long-haired, guitar-playin’ Yankee Boy.”

“And?  It’s not like everybody in town didn’t already know Richie’s entire life story by the time we got to Ruby Mae’s.”  Annie couldn’t keep the thick sarcasm from her response.  She snorted derisively.  As much as she loved the people in this little town, sometimes their nosiness drove her crazy.

And.”  Tillie gave Annabelle a stern look.  “From the sounds of things you were mighty friendly with each other.”

Annie threw her hands up in exasperation.  Her honey-blonde curls bounced with the quick shake of her head.  “Oh, Hell, Miss Tillie… we were just dancin’ together.”

“Annabelle, language.” Tillie warned.

Ignoring her scold, Annie continued.  “God forbid a grown man and a grown woman go out and have a good time dancin’ and drinkin’ and listenin’ to music on a Saturday night!”

“Annabelle!”  Tillie’s second warning was sharp.  “Don’t you get fussy with me.  I’m just sayin’ what I heard.”

Annie exhaled noisily in frustration.  “Sorry.  This just makes me crazy.  I suppose Richie and I were doin’ more than just dancin', according to what you heard?”

Tillie allowed a little smirk to crack her serious demeanor.  While she wasn’t wild about the Girl spending time at a rough place like Ruby Mae’s, she had been secretly happy to hear Annabelle had gone there in Richie’s company.  Even if he was a stranger, Tillie was reasonably sure Richie would let no harm come to Annie if things got a little out of hand at that place.

“Why, were you?”

Annie’s lips parted with a little gasp of surprise, then pressed into a firm line.  She was just ready to fire off her denial when she saw the little twinkle in Miss Tillie’s blue eyes.  She realized she had answered the woman’s question with her reaction.   Despite her annoyance, she smiled. 

“Well, Miss Tillie… this town’s gonna believe what they want, so what I did or didn’t do doesn’t really matter, now does it?”  Annie crossed her arms over her chest and gave her gold curls a defiant toss.

“I heard what that Hippie Boy was doin’ out at Ruby Mae’s with Annie.”  Otis’ grinning ebony face appeared in the kitchen order window.  His deep brown eyes twinkled merrily.  “I hear Hippie Boy was burnin’ it UP with the Band.”

Grateful for the interruption, Annie turned to smile at Otis.  “Now that is true.”  Annie wagged a finger at Tillie.  “And that’s from a reliable source.”

“Don’t you shake no finger at me, Young Lady,” Tillie warned good-naturedly.  “And how do you know where Otis heard that?”

Annie turned back to the cook, her face now lit with a smile.  “Sammy told you, didn’t he?”

“He sho’ did.  Said Richie borrowed his guitar and stood up wit' the band.  And WHOOOO!  Did Hippie Boy PLAY!”  Otis shook his head to accent his exclamation.  “Sammy said was like Richie ‘been playin’ with them all along.”

Annie nodded excitedly.  “And he sang, too.  Oh, Otis… his voice.  It’s just amazin’.  He sang 'Johnny Be Goode' and 'House of the Risin’ Sun'.”  She sighed dreamily, recalling the fiery flush of desire that had raced through her at the sound of Richie’s soulful voice.

“Yeah, Sammy said he was good, that Hippie Boy.”  Otis chuckled at Annie’s swooning.  “We oughta sign him up to the Church choir.  Bet he could sing him some Gospel.”

Annie giggled, the vision of Richie in a white choir robe popping into her mind.  “Yeah, he’d be great.  ‘Specially at your Church.  Think your kinda hymns are a little more to his likin’.”  She sighed again.  “But I betcha I can talk him into joinin’ our choir.  Miss Adeline says we need more men, and his voice is so strong…”

Tillie cut her off.  “What do you mean, talk Richie into joinin’ the choir?  Ain’t he goin’ home soon as Eddie gets him fixed up?”