Friday, July 27, 2012

Chapter 33


The low rumble of an engine made Annie look up.  Her lips curved into a smile as she ducked her head to peer out the open window, the creamy lace curtains stirring with the light cross-breeze.  She watched the wide rusty-blue car roll slowly up the long drive, gravel crunching beneath its tires.

Annie chuckled at the brown elbow and forearm protruding from the driver’s side window.  It was all she could see of Richie, his silhouette obscured by the glint of descending sun off the Impala’s winshield.  But just that little glimpse of tanned skin made her stomach flutter.

Still smiling, Annie straightened and returned her attention to her task.  Her gaze dropped back to the gray t-shirt flattened against the quilt covering her bed.  Her hands gently smoothed away the little wrinkles in the worn fabric before folding it into thirds, then into thirds again. 

Annie deftly flipped the perfectly-folded tee over and smoothed it once more before placing it neatly on the pile with the rest of Richie’s clothes.  She heard the engine stop abruptly, followed by the crunch of footsteps on the gravel drive and the loud metallic thump of a closing car door. 

Humming softly, Annie moved toward the bedroom door.  She had hardly stepped out into the short hallway when she heard the screen door rattle open.

“Annie?”

Richie’s sweaty face split into a grin when she rounded the corner.  He raised a hand to rake through his stringy, windblown hair, pushing it back from his forehead.  “Hey.”

“Well, Hey yourself.”  Annie chuckled and padded barefoot across the rug to him.  She placed a palm gently against his dampened t-shirt and leaned up to give him a little smooch.  “I was beginnin’ to think you got yourself lost.”

“Uh… I kinda did.”  Richie gave her a sheepish shrug.  “Just one wrong turn, though.  I figured it out.”

“Well, I guess you have an excuse.  After all, it is your first time drivin’ out here to the house.”

“Yeah.”  Richie grinned down at Annie.  She looked adorable, her blue eyes sparkling and her lightly-freckled nose wrinkling with her gentle tease.

“So, you still gonna take me out to the carnival tonight?”  Annie’s golden curls bounced lightly as she stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest.  She tipped her head to one side, giving him a quizzical look.

“Hell yeah!  I mean… if you still want me to.”

“Oh, I do.  I love the carnival.  Best week of the summer.”  Annie nodded emphatically.  “Money goes to a good cause, too.  Helpin’ people with medical bills, orphans and foster kids, the volunteer fire department…”

“Well then sure, we have to go.”  Richie smiled his agreement.  “Um… what time does it start?  I gotta grab a shower first.  I’m all sweaty and greasy.  Helped Eddie rebuild a trannie on some guy’s pickup truck.”

“I know.  Lance came into the restaurant for lunch.”  Annie giggled softly and gave Richie a little wink.  “I told him not to worry, you knew what you were doin’.  Plus Eddie was lookin’ over your shoulder.”

“Great.  Thanks.”  Richie rolled his eyes playfully.  “Anyway… what time you wanna go?  Pretty soon?”

“Whenever you want.  The carnival opened today at noon, but it don’t really get rollin’ on the first day ‘til folks get off work.  We got plenty of time.”

Richie nodded and stepped toward the corner where his guitar case sat propped against Annie’s stereo console.  “Okay.  You wanna eat there too?  Or maybe get a burger on the way or somethin'?”  His expression turned to a puzzled frown when he realized his army-surplus duffel was no longer in the spot it had occupied all weekend, slumped on Annie’s living room rug next to her stereo. 

“Oh, we wanna eat there, for sure.” Annie giggled at Richie’s obvious confusion, but continued her answer.  “All the Brunswick churches and the civic clubs and the PTA all run food booths.  There’s all kinds of good cookin’ for sale at the carnival.  The Rotary does fried catfish… Mmm-MMM.”  She hummed her approval.  “And of course there’s funnel cakes and cotton candy…”

“Umm… okay.”  Richie turned to look around the room, distracted from Annie’s culinary rundown by his visual search for his duffel.

Annie giggled.  “Richie, it’s in the bedroom.”

“My bag?”

“Uh huh.  I took the last of yesterday’s wash off the line and folded it up.  I was gonna put it back in your bag, but I saw you had other stuff in there.  I wasn’t gonna put clean clothes in there until you can get that other dirty ol' stuff out.  And I didn’t wanna snoop, so…”

“Oh.  S’Okay.”  Richie felt a little pang of anxiety at the thought of Annie going through his bag.  He didn’t have anything to hide, exactly.  But he would be a little embarrassed if she saw the pathetic balance in the checkbook register buried at the bottom of the duffel.  “Um… thanks for folding my clothes.  You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yes I did.”  Annie chuckled teasingly.  “You woulda just wadded up those clean shirts and jeans and stuffed ‘em back into that ol’ bag.  You’re a guy.

“Well, yeah.”

Annie rolled her eyes and shook her head, still grinning.  “Well, anyway… your clean clothes are on my bed.  Now why don’t you go get yourself cleaned up, too?”

Richie chortled softly, taking a step over to where Annie stood.  He dropped his head, smiling down at her.  “They got rides at this carnival too?”

“ ‘Course.”  A tingle ran down Annie’s spine at the look in Richie’s deep chocolate eyes.  “Why?”

“ ‘Cause.” Richie grinned playfully, then lowered his lips to hover over hers. “I kinda like the idea of you holdin’ on to me while we spin around real fast.”       

Annie smirked coyly.  “Maybe you’ll be the one holdin’ on to me.”  She tipped her head upward, her lips making contact with his. 

Richie chuckled against her sweet kiss.  “If you want me to.”

“Well, we’ll see how the evenin' goes.”  Annie pulled her face back to give Richie a grin, then pushed at his chest.  “Now go.  Get in the shower.  I’m hungry.”

“ ‘Kay.”  Richie nodded and shuffled toward the little hallway, Annie stepping aside to make room for him to pass.  “Now that you mention it, I’m starving too.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Annie laughed her reply.  Richie had proven over the past few days that, despite his rail-thin build, he could put away some food.

Richie didn’t answer, just smiling to himself as he wandered past the bathroom door and into Annie’s bedroom.  He stopped just inside the door, his gaze falling to the quilt-covered bed. 

As Annie had said, his clean shirts and jeans were folded and neatly stacked.  A small pile of rolled off-white tube socks lay beside them.  Next to the socks a half-dozen pairs of semi-dingy briefs were folded into uneven rectangles. 

Richie’s cheeks colored lightly at the thought of Annie folding his underwear.  Some things he just didn’t want to consider.

His eyes dropped from his freshly-done laundry to the floor, looking for his duffel bag.  When he didn’t see it next to the bed, Richie frowned.  He moved further into the bedroom, around the bed, scanning the floor for the canvas container that held all his belongings. 

A quick duck of his head to look under Annie’s bed proved fruitless.  Straightening up and raising a hand to scratch unconsciously at his head, Richie turned back toward the door.

“Annie?  Where’s my ruck?”

Her reply floated down the hall from the opposite end of the little house.  “I put it in the closet!”

“Oh. Duh.” Richie mumbled to himself as he stepped over to the narrow door in the corner of Annie’s bedroom.  He turned the knob and tugged hard, forcing the humidity-swollen wood to release from the door frame.  His eyes dropped automatically to the floor of the tiny space.

Richie leaned down to pick up the nearly-empty olive-drab bag, hauling it up by one frayed strap.  As he straightened the back of his hand brushed against the garments hanging from the bar that spanned the narrow closet.  He smiled as he recognized the green dress Annie had worn to church the day before.

Reaching out, Richie gently traced his fingers over the soft cotton. His smile gentled as he recalled how pretty and feminine she looked, gliding around the church in her summer dress and her prim heels.  And how angelic she had looked in her snowy white choir robe, her cheeks glowing and her hair shining like a golden halo.

And how incredibly sexy she had looked on her knees, genuflecting before him on the front porch in a most unexpected and welcome erotic surprise.

A little shudder ran down Richie’s spine at the vivid memory, culminating in a powerful surge to his groin.  The corners of his mouth curved into a secretive grin and he gave his head a brisk shake, as if to clear away the image.  If he got all turned on now he was going to have to spend extra time in the shower and make Annie wait even longer to go to her carnival.

Richie gave the green cotton one last stroke, then let it go.  He tugged his rucksack out of the closet, tossing it onto the floor next to the bed.  As he turned to close the closet door something else caught Richie’s attention, making him pause.

Hanging on the bar next to Annie’s green church dress was his white shirt.  It was clean and crisp, neatly ironed.  The thin black tie that had belonged to Annie’s grandfather curved loosely around the neck, ready to be knotted under the starched collar.

It was ready for him to wear again, the next time he accompanied Annie to church.

Richie stood motionless, staring at the garment as a flood of emotions swept over him.  Yesterday he had been so certain that next Sunday he would be sitting in the wooden pew at the back of the church, watching her sing in the choir.  He had received a sign from the Heavens or from fate or from wherever, that this is where his future lay, here in Darien with Annie.

And then, like a bolt from the blue, it had returned.  His music.  His soul had been awakened, and even the delightful temptation of a full night of naked passion with Annabelle had been unable to keep him from the music.   

She was his Muse.  She had drawn him in, ensnared his heart, inspired his soul.  And now here he stood, staring at the product of her mundane house-chore that so poignantly symbolized the choice he had to make.

Annie had made room in her life for him.  He could stay here with her and live a quiet, simple life in this close-knit little community that had welcomed and sheltered him.  They would have each other; they would grow closer over time.  He would get a job; she would keep working.  Eventually they'd save enough money for her to go to nursing school and maybe buy a bigger house.  Richie could even buy another guitar; maybe a Gibson like the one he had pawned back in Tupelo.  They could get married and raise their children in this peaceful, unpretentious place, and drive back up to Jersey a couple times a year to visit the ghosts of Richie's past life and let his parents spoil their Grandkids.

And every now and again on a Saturday night he could break out his guitar and sit in with the band at Ruby Mae's.  Just to remember what it was like.

Richie's gaze dropped to the floor, to the rumpled heap of olive-drab canvas that lay beside his boot.

Or he could pack up his belongings, the worn, faded clothes Annie had so thoughtfully cleaned and folded, and his battered old guitar case, and he could drive back to the only life he had ever known.  He could spend his days toiling in a factory and his nights in musty clubs down the Shore, drinking and smoking with his buddies and singing and playing with any band who would have him until his voice was a raspy croak and his fingers bled… And he would love every minute of it.

Except it would be without Her.

Slowly, Richie pushed the closet door closed.  He stared at the doorknob for a moment before turning away.  With a sigh he reached down to pick up his ruck, dragging it around the end of the bed before slinging it onto the rocking chair next to the window. 

Silently he rooted around in the canvas bag until he found his shaving kit.  Then he turned and shuffled down the hall, eager for the cool rain of the shower to wash away the grime of his day’s labors and to refresh his suddenly melancholy mood.

*****
“Go up another block and turn left.  You’ll see the grade school on the left.”

Richie slowed the Impala and guided it toward the curb of the tree-lined street, making way for an oncoming truck to drift past.  He peered ahead at the line of vehicles inching slowly down the brick path.

“What’s with all the traffic?”

Annie giggled and poked him playfully in the ribs.  “It’s the carnival! I told you, it’s the highlight of the summer!  For the whole county, not just for town.”

Richie cringed at her tickle, then grinned.  His arm tightened around her shoulder, giving her a little hug.  Annie purred softly, snuggling closer against his side on the Impala’s wide bench seat.

Richie tilted his head to the left, trying to look around the big 4 x 4 pickup truck blocking his view down the street.  “Shit, it may be dark before we even get to the parking lot.” 

His observation was part tease, part exasperated vent.  Richie squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, trying unsuccessfully to adjust himself without grabbing his crotch.  Annie had sat close beside him for the entire twenty-minute drive from Darien, and they had been inching through Brunswick for another ten minutes.  Her scent, her voice, and the warmth of her skin had been driving him slowly crazy the entire while.

“I think we’ll be fine.  Sun sets late in the summertime.”  Annie gave Richie a little sideways smirk and slipped her hand along the inside of his denim-covered thigh.  “The biggest danger is we’ll starve to death ‘fore we get outta this traffic jam.”

Richie chuckled huskily and squirmed again.  “You really do wanna eat, don’t you?”

“Uh huh.  Best part of the carnival.”

“So I’ve heard.”  Richie gave Annie another squeeze and turned his head to smile at her.  Annie responded by leaning up to give him a light kiss.

Just as her lips slipped from his the truck ahead of them began to move.  “Finally!” Richie exclaimed.  “About fuckin’ time!”  He jerked the lever to throw the Impala’s transmission back into “Drive” and let the big car roll forward.

Annie giggled.  “So you ain’t one for patience, then.”

“Not really.”

“Hmm. Yep, definitely a Yankee.”

Richie shot her a sideways grin.  “And damned proud of it.”

It took them another five minutes to travel the block and a half to the elementary school.  Annie kept up her commentary about the festival’s food selections in between gently teasing Richie about his impatience and inching her hand higher up the inseam of his jeans.  By the time he finally pulled the Impala into a space in the school parking lot Richie was both horny and hungry.  It was obvious which one of those conditions was going to be alleviated first.

Richie gave Annie a quick smooch.  “Stay there… I’m comin’ around to get ya.”  He pushed open the car door and unfolded his lanky frame from behind the Impala’s wheel.

“Such nice manners,” Annie giggled as she watched him round the front of the car and approach the passenger side.  Richie had to yank twice on the handle to get the door to oblige, but he swung it open with a rusty creak and offered Annabelle his hand.  “I may turn you into a Southern Gentleman yet.”

Richie grinned.  “I don’t know ‘bout that.”  He waited until Annie stepped away from the car before shoving the door shut.  “Stupid piece of shit,” he swore in a mutter as the misaligned door protested the change in position.  Richie hip-checked the dingy metal just to be sure the door was securely latched. 

Annie chortled amusedly at Richie’s sneer.  “Okay, so maybe you need a little more work in the Southern Gentleman department.  Like not swearin’ in front of a lady.”

“Or asking a woman her age?”  Richie’s wry reply made Annie laugh.  His heart warmed as he watched her eyes sparkle and her golden curls bounce.  She was like a walking ray of sunshine.

“Yeah.  Or that.”  Annie gave Richie a sweet smile before reaching for his hand.  Twining her fingers between his, she tugged gently.  “Now c’mon.  Let me show you what a good ol’-fashioned Southern summer carnival’s all about.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Chapter 32


Richie held his breath, waiting for Eddie’s acknowledgment.  The pause seemed to last an eternity.

Eddie’s ancient office chair creaked loudly as the hefty man leaned back against the cracked vinyl upholstery.  Richie heard the wheels scrape on the concrete floor as the chair swiveled with its occupant’s movement.

“What’s that?”  There was a weary note to Eddie’s query, like he knew what Richie was about to confess.  But his voice was warm and calm, as if he were encouraging a timid child.

Richie gulped and raised his gaze from his hands to the kindly mechanic’s face.  He almost cringed at the benevolence in Eddie’s gray eyes.

“Umm… I’m not sure I can… I can pay you for… for my car.  Not today, anyway.”  

Richie swallowed hard again, a wave of shame washing over him.  He blinked rapidly, willing the moisture that suddenly glazed his eyes to dissipate.  “I can give you part of the money now, but the rest… Well, I’ll get it somehow.”

Richie paused for a moment, dreading Eddie’s response.  When the mechanic just gave him a sympathetic smile, Richie felt an extended explanation tumble from his lips in an apologetic rush. 

“I’ll see if I can do some handyman work or somethin’.  Annie might know somebody who needs some yard work done, or some stuff fixed around the house.   Or maybe Miss Tillie does.   I’m pretty good with tools…”  

Richie’s hands moved animatedly as he babbled, the folded yellow paper fluttering with his wave and with a gust of air from the fan.  “Or… Or maybe my Dad can loan me the rest, send it by wire…”

The vocalization of his last resort stopped Richie cold.  His shoulders slumped as again his head dropped.  He stared defeatedly at the folded invoice now crumpled in his hand.  At that moment he felt like a complete and utter failure.

“Richie, I kinda figured you might be a little short on cash.”  Eddie’s reply was gentle, his voice softened to a warm rumble.  “Since you said you ain’t been workin’ for awhile, and you’re sleepin’ on Annie’s sofa instead of in a motel.”

Richie nodded silently, unable to bring himself to look up at the big man.

“Times are tough, Son.  I know.  For lots of folks around here.  Heck, most of my customers pay their bills on an installment plan.  They just gimme what they can when their paychecks come in, until they’re paid up.”  Eddie chortled softly.  “Or until I need somethin’ from their business, then I mark whatever it costs me off-a their bill.  That’s just how we do things down here.  Everybody’s family, and you help family out.”

“That’s… that’s a nice thing to do.”  Richie mumbled.  He wasn’t quite sure what Eddie’s explanation had to do with his debt, since he was clearly not a local.

Eddie answered Richie’s unspoken question.  “So, since I figured you were sorta in a fix,  an’ you were already havin’ enough bad luck, I gave you a break.  Only charged you for the part and for the tuneup, an’ just one hour of labor.”  He nodded at the paper clenched in Richie’s hand.  “To keep my books right.”

Richie acknowledged Eddie's explanation with a small defeated nod.  While he was grateful for Eddie’s compassion, Richie was certain the cost of the thermostat and the filters and spark plugs they had replaced while tuning up the Impala’s engine far exceeded the meager balance in his bank account.

“Thanks, Eddie.  I really appreciate you giving me a break.  But right now I just don’t have the cash.” 

Seeing that Richie was still avoiding eye contact, Eddie chuckled sympathetically.  He turned in his chair, making it creak again, and propped his feet up on the open bottom desk drawer.  “So…” He nodded again at the invoice Richie held.  “How much-a that you think you can cover?”

Richie shrugged, then sighed wearily.  His gaze fixed on his hands as he slowly uncrumpled the yellow paper, then opened the fold.  

A brush of air from the fan made the stapled adding machine tape flutter, momentarily distracting Richie’s gaze from the ballpoint scrawl across the bill.  A lump rose in his throat as he comprehended the numbers at the bottom of the column on the invoice’s right-hand side.

SUBTOTAL:     $89.45
Georgia Tax:   $  2.68
TOTAL:            $92.13

Almost a hundred dollars.  

He didn’t know how he’d come up with that kind of money doing odd jobs around town.  Now he had no choice but to do the one thing he had desperately hoped to avoid – ask his father for money.

“Listen, Eddie…” Richie started to offer the mechanic the balance of his checkbook as a down payment, but hesitated.  His eyes narrowed as they settled on something else on the invoice, something he hadn’t noticed in his tunnel-vision focus on the final cost of his repair.  Then they widened in surprise.

Angled across the middle of the paper, large block letters stamped in red ink heralded the status of the debt:  “PAID IN FULL.”

Richie sat frozen for a moment, staring at the paper in his hand.  Swallowing hard, he opened his mouth to confirm what he was seeing, to verify that Eddie hadn’t mistakenly marked off his debt.  Richie had to try three times before his voice finally came out in a raspy croak.

“Eddie… I… uh… This says ‘Paid’.”

“Uh huh.  It sure does.”

Richie gulped again, choking back a lump of gratitude.  The corners of his mouth curved gratefully upward as again he blinked, his deep brown eyes shining with moisture.  When he finally raised his gaze to meet Eddie’s, the wide fatherly grin on the big man’s ruddy face almost made Richie’s self-control crack.

“But… It’s a lot of money.”  Richie’s protest was meek.  “And all the time you spent helping me when you coulda been working on somebody else’s car… instead of fixin’ mine for free.”

He was embarrassed at the rush of euphoria welling inside him; though Eddie’s apparent dismissal of the debt was a huge relief, Richie felt a sharp pang of guilt.  Eddie was a working-class family man, with his own bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Eddie chuckled again, this time a little more huskily, touched by Richie’s obvious gratitude.  “Well, it ain’t exactly for free, Richie.  You helped me out all day Saturday with customers.  An’ today you put in a lotta good hours helpin’ me out with these repairs.”  He grinned and leaned back a little further in his chair, eliciting another long creak

“So that was eleven hours on Saturday, another nine today, at three dollars an hour…”  Eddie grinned as he ticked off the numbers on his beefy fingers.  “Heck, that’s sixty dollars in labor, right there.”

“But the cost of the parts… and part of that time I was workin’ on my own car.”

“I know.  But Richie, it’s more’n just you workin’ hard for me.”  Eddie gave the shaggy-headed young man a long look, his voice gentling.  “I told you, we’re a family ‘round here.  When you rode into town in Annie’s pickup truck the other night, I had my doubts about you, I’ll admit.  But you proved somethin’ to me, Richie.”

Richie swallowed hard again.  “What?”

“Son, you reminded me that good people come from all ‘round, not just down here in our little communities, where people have known each other for generations.”  Eddie paused again, clearing his throat lightly.  

“The respectfulness you showed me, and the manners you showed to Miss Tillie… And how you kept smilin’ and bein’ friendly to everybody on Saturday who kept pokin’ their nose in your business, drivin’ in just to check you out…”  Eddie snorted out an amused chuckle at Richie’s wry grin and embarrassed shrug.  “Believe me, I know that ain’t easy.”

Richie chortled softly.  “Naw, it was alright.  People here are nice.”

“And most of all, Richie…”  Eddie’s voice gentled.  “The way you treated Annabelle since you been here.  You’ve respected her, treated her like a lady, even been a little protective of her, from what I hear.”  Again he chuckled.  “And you came to church with her, when you ain't even Baptist.”

Richie’s cheeks heated as he listened to Eddie’s assessment of his relationship with Annie.  If only Eddie knew that what they had shared was far from the chaste companionship he was describing.

“Annie…. She… saved me.”  Richie dropped his gaze again to his hands as a gentle smile curved his lips.  “She’s amazing.  I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”

“Well, she obviously thinks you’re worth savin’.  And I have a feelin’ she did her damndest over the past couple days to give you every reason to be happy your ol’ Impala broke down in Darien.” 

Eddie’s throaty chortle revealed that he did suspect the full extent of Richie’s weekend activities with his hostess.  Richie’s blush deepened as he slouched back in his seat.  He didn’t answer, confident Eddie could read his admission in his posture and expression.
 
“Richie, I don’t think I ever seen her smile at a boy the way she smiles at you.  And it’s been a long time since I’ve seen her smile that much, period.”  Eddie stared at Richie’s profile until the younger man raised his head to give a sheepish nod of acknowledgement. He held Richie’s gaze for a long minute, wanting to make sure his message was received.

When he spoke again, Eddie’s tone was warmed by manly affection.  “Richie, what we were talkin’ about Saturday, about you goin’ back home and gettin’ a job and settlin’ down…”  He paused, smiling benevolently.  “Don’t be in too much of a rush to do that, Son.  You know, dreams are important.  They’re what get you outta bed in the mornin' and what you pray for when you lay down at night.  They keep life exciting.”

Richie’s brows lifted with surprise at Eddie’s contradictory advice.  He sat silent, wondering where the big man was heading with his unexpected observation.

“You’re a fine young man, Richie.  A man of character.  You work hard, you treat people right… Your Ma and Pa should be real proud of you.” 

At the mention of his parents Richie found his voice.  He smiled wistfully.  “Thanks.  I think they are.  No… I know they are.”  Richie’s heart squeezed as he heard his mother’s telephone farewell echo in his head.

“Well, they have every right to be.”  Eddie nodded his affirmation, then gave Richie a fatherly smile.  “Listen, I don’t know much about you, other’n what you’ve told me and what I’ve seen with my own eyes.  But I know one thing, Son.  When you came into town three days ago, you felt like the world was kickin’ you in the ass.  I could see it, read it on your face.”

Richie’s expression sobered.  He nodded silently.

“Then somethin’ happened.  You got a wake-up call, figured out that maybe the whole world ain’t so rough.  Or maybe you figured out how to put all the bad stuff behind you and get down to what’s important.  I dunno.  Whatever it was…”  Eddie paused and gave Richie a curious look.  “You’re a different man sittin’ in front of me right now than you were a couple days ago.  And I think that’s a good thing.”

Richie shrugged, the corners of his mouth again curving upward as he considered Eddie’s words.  “Yeah,” he agreed softly.  “It is.”

“I know you’ve been wanderin’ around for awhile now, trying to figure out how to live your life.  But the fact is… while you been tryin’ to figure out the answer, you’ve been livin’ all along.”  Eddie smiled wisely.  “An’ I have a feelin’ you found the right path to take, to get you where you wanna go.”

Richie pulled in a deep breath, nodding slowly as he considered Eddie’s words.  But despite his silent affirmation, he realized Eddie’s statement couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Yes, this weekend had changed him, for the better.  He had found shelter and comfort and affection in the arms of an angel.  He had found passion in her bed and love in her heart. 

And he had rediscovered a part of his soul he thought was long gone.

But as to what path to take… he had no clue.  He was torn.

Eddie watched Richie’s face, reading the conflict in his expression.  His heart twinged with sympathy.  He felt for the young man, having to decide whether to follow his dreams or to follow his heart.

Eddie took a deep breath, then laced his fingers together across his belly.  “Richie, Saturday when we were sittin’ here talkin’ at the end of the day, I asked you to do one thing.  Do you remember what that was?”

Richie raised his face, his brown eyes meeting Eddie’s earnest gray gaze.  The men shared a long look of silent understanding.

“Yes, Sir.  I remember.”

“Okay, then.”  The big mechanic leaned forward in his chair, extending a hand to his young companion.  “Whatever path you take, wherever God leads you…. Good luck, Richie.”




Friday, July 13, 2012

Chapter 31


“Dialing now.”

Richie glanced out at the restaurant as he unconsciously nodded at the operator’s reply.  He saw Annie give him a curious look as she stacked dirty dishes at a vacated table.  He was barely able to muster a small smile in return before turning his back to her.  Leaning against the wall beside the pay phone, Richie sighed softly.

“Hello?”

“Ma’am, Bell Telephone.  I have a collect call from Richie.  Do you accept the charges?”

“Why Yes!  Oh, Thank you, Operator!”  Joan Sambora’s bright voice expressed her joy at the surprise communication.

“You’re connected.”  With a quiet click the operator exited the line.

Richie smiled at his mother’s excitement, even as a twinge of guilt hit him.  It had been awhile since he talked to his parents.  “Hi, Ma.”

“Oh, Richie!  It’s so nice to hear from you!  How are you, Honey?”

Richie chuckled quietly.  “I’m okay, Ma.  How are you and Dad doin’?”

“Well, we miss you, of course.  But we’re fine.”

“Still dancing?”

Joan laughed merrily.  “Yes, of course.  We haven’t had a competition in awhile, though.  Your father has been keeping very busy lately.  He’s started his bowling league again.”

“Bowling?”  Richie’s brow arched with surprise.  His father was an excellent bowler, and he had taught his son the skill at a young age.  For years Adam Sambora had bowled with friends in an organized league, but when he was promoted to a supervisory position at the plant he had been forced to drop out.  His rotating schedule made it too hard for him to keep his commitment to his teammates.

“Yes.  He’s having a lot of fun with it, as you can imagine.”  Joan’s happy giggle made Richie smile again.

“How’d he manage that?  Ain’t he working nights anymore?”

“Well…” Joan’s voice softened a bit, as if she was sharing a secret.  “He gave up the Foreman job.  He’s back on day shift now, as a line worker.”

Richie’s gut tightened.  He knew what that meant… his Dad had also taken a corresponding pay cut. Richie wondered if the demotion had been truly voluntary, or necessary for his father to hang on to his Union job.  Such a move wasn’t unusual, particularly in tough times when employers were laying off workers.

And here he was, calling to ask for money.

“Oh.  Well… at least he gets to see you more now, right?  You get to have kind of a normal life?”

“Yes, we do.  That’s a blessing.  Especially since we’re the only two in the house now.”  Joan’s comment carried a slightly poignant note.  “And where are you, Richie?  Are you in Florida now?”

“Naw.  I’m in Georgia.”  Richie cringed guiltily, realizing the last time he talked to his mother he was still in Mississippi.  That had been a couple weeks ago.

“Well, that’s nice.  Atlanta?”

“Nuh-uh.  I’m in Darien.  It’s a little town on the coast.  Right on the ocean.”

“Oh.  What are you doing there?  Playing at a club with a new band?”

Richie chuckled at his mother’s assumption.  Her always-optimistic assessment of her son’s talent warmed his heart, even if it was completely off-target.

“No, Ma.  I’m not with a band right now.  I stopped here because…”  He paused, realizing he was unwilling to confess the truth to his mother.  It was bad enough he had to ask his Old Man for help; he didn’t want to make her worry too.  “Um… I’m visiting a friend.  Staying at their place.”

“Well, that’s nice.”  Joan chuckled warmly.  “Speaking of your friends, I ran into Dean at the market.  He’s sacking groceries there now.  Such a nice young man.  He asked after you.”

“Oh?”  Richie winced silently.  He and Dean had gone to high school together, and played in a couple bands.  To hear his former guitar sidekick was now working as a grocery store bag boy was disheartening, to say the least.  “What’d you tell him?”

“That you were down South, of course.  Makin’ records and playing your guitar.”

Richie’s heart squeezed.  “Ma, I told you… I’m not exactly doing that right now.”

“Well, you were.  In Memphis.  I showed Dean the photograph you sent, of you and that other man at Sun Studios.”  Joan’s happy voice was full of pride.  “He thought it was really neat.”

“Great, Ma.”  Richie sighed softly and reached up to pull his fingers through his bangs.  Lovely.  Now when he rolled into town and saw his old buddies they would be expecting him to be some kind of big-shot musician.  His mother had probably bragged about his nonexistent solo record, too. 

“Well, tell him I say ‘hi’ next time you see him.”

“I will.  Are you staying in Georgia for awhile, Honey?”

“Umm… maybe.” Richie looked over his shoulder as he gave his vague answer.  He saw Annabelle had her back to him as she conversed with some patrons at a table near the front window.  The corner of his mouth curved upward as his gaze lingered on the back pockets of her denim skirt.

“So I suppose you won’t be home for your birthday, then?”  Joan’s disappointment in the falsely-upbeat question came through the telephone line, loud and clear.

Richie felt another stab of shame at his mother’s query.  “It’s only a few weeks away, Ma,” he replied, avoiding a direct answer.

“I know.”  Joan sighed.  “This will be the first year I don’t get to bake you a cake.  But I guess that’s what happens… Little boys grow up, become men, move away...”  Her lament was thick with motherly guilt.

Richie rolled his eyes, but smiled despite his remorse.  “Ma, I’ll always let you bake me a cake.”  He chuckled quietly.  “You make the best chocolate cake in the whole world.”

“Well, Honey… when you come home that’s the first thing I’m gonna do.”  Joan giggled softly.  “After I give you a big ol’ hug, that is.”

“Okay, Ma.”  Richie’s smile faded as he took a breath.  “So, I guess Dad’s not home, then?  If he’s workin’ days?”

“No, he’s at work.  Do you want me to give him a message?”

Richie shook his head, even though she couldn’t see him.  “Naw.  I’ll try to call back later.  What time will he be home?  Five?”

“No, tonight’s League Night.  He usually goes straight to the lanes from the factory.  He won’t be home until after nine.”

Richie frowned.  As much as he dreaded asking his father for money, he had hoped to at least have a plan when he returned to the garage.  Now he would definitely have to go back to Eddie empty-handed, without even the promise of a Western Union Moneygram on the way.  Assuming his father had the money to lend him, of course.

“Alright, Ma.  Maybe I’ll try to call him later tonight.  Depends what’s going on down here.”

“Are you playing tonight?”

Richie shook his head, a little smile again turning his lips.  God Bless his Mother, for always assuming he was a working musician.  “Naw.  I’m taking… uh…going to a carnival with my… friend.”

“Oh!  Well, that sounds like fun.  Just be careful and watch out for those Carnies.  They’ll steal your last dollar if you don’t keep an eye on your wallet.”

Joan’s warning made Richie snort out an ironic laugh.  As if he even had a dollar left to steal.  “I’ll be careful, Ma.  I always am.”

“I miss you, Richie-Boo.  It’s so nice to hear your voice.”  Joan’s lament was tinged with sadness.

Richie grimaced at the pet name as his heart squeezed.  “I miss you too, Ma.  Sorry I haven’t called in awhile.”

“Please call your father tonight.  He misses you too.  It’s just not the same around here without you.” 

Richie swallowed hard.  “Yeah, I will.  Tell Dad I miss him too.”  He cleared the lump from his throat.  “Listen, Ma.  I gotta go, okay?”

“Okay, Darling.  I love you.  Be careful.”

“Love you too, Ma.  I will.”

Richie dropped the receiver back into its cradle, then braced his arm across the phone-box.  He sighed heavily as he bowed his head, resting his forehead against his forearm.  His heart throbbed guiltily as he blinked away the mist from his brown eyes.

Well, so much for that.  He had just delayed the inevitable.

With another deep sigh Richie lifted his head and stepped back from the pay phone.  He swallowed hard before turning to face the roomful of people.  Forcing a little smile, Richie wandered over to the counter, where Annie was pouring sweet tea into ice-filled red plastic tumblers arranged on a round tray.

“Hey.  Your burgers are ready.”  Annie tipped her head toward the greasy brown paper bag resting on the ledge of the pick-up window.  “You don’t got time to eat here?”

Richie shook his head.  “Naw.  Eddie wanted me to bring ‘em back to the garage.  He’s calling in a parts order.”

“Oh.  Well, let me grab you a couple cold Cokes.”  Annie set down the pitcher and stepped to her left.  She leaned to reach down into the cooler.  Extracting two frosty bottles, she set them on the counter in front of Richie.  “You can pop ‘em open on the bottle opener he has back by the bench.”

Richie chuckled.  “Yeah.  Or on the one in his Coke machine.”

Annie gave Richie an inquisitive look, tipping her head.  “Everything okay?”

“Sure.  Why?”

“You just seem kinda quiet today, is all.”

Richie shrugged.  He could see in Annie’s concerned gaze that she was curious about his phone call.  “Naw, I’m okay.  I just called home to say Hi to my Ma.  She says I don’t call often enough.”

Annie’s smile gentled.  “She misses you, huh?”

“Yeah.  You know, I’ll always be her Little Boy.”  Richie grinned sheepishly.  “Guess I miss her too.  And my Dad.”

“Well, nothin’ wrong with that.  Family is important.”  Annie reached to give Richie’s arm a little squeeze.

“Yeah,” Richie repeated.  His eyes met Annie’s and he gave her an apologetic smile.  “I better get back.  Eddie’s waiting on me.”

“Okay.  Lemme get your burgers.”  Annie patted Richie’s arm before stepping away.  She moved over to retrieve the paper bag from the order window, then set it next to the Coca-Cola bottles on the counter.

“Here…” Richie fished in his front pocket, pulling out the crumpled wad of paper money.  "How much?"

Annie waved a hand.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“But Annie… Miss Tillie can’t keep feeding me… us… for free.”  Richie protested though he was silently relieved at her charity.  “She’s got a business to run.”

Annie smirked.  “It’s just a couple burgers and some fries, Richie.  Miss Tillie feeds Eddie all the time.  And she ain’t paid for gas or oil changes in years.  It all works out in the end.”  She gave him a little wink.

Richie chuckled at her revelation, then pushed the money back into his pocket.  “Well… okay.  Thanks.”

“You got it.”  Annie watched Richie loop his fingers around the necks of the Coke bottles, then pick up the burger bag with his other hand.  As he turned for the door, she made him pause.  “Hey, Richie?”

“Yeah?”  He looked back over his shoulder.  His heart melted at her sweet smile.

“I’m lookin’ forward to goin' to the carnival with you tonight.”

A genuine smile lit Richie’s face.  “Me too.”  He gave her a little nod, then moved to the door. 

Annie sighed and leaned down to pull another cold Coke from the cooler.  Popping the cap, she took a long drink as she gazed through the diner’s plate glass window, watching Richie cross the street and disappear into the bay of Eddie’s Texaco.

*****

Richie pulled the Impala back up onto the concrete apron and guided it to a stop.  He smiled faintly as he put the big car in park and shut down the engine.

Eddie looked up at the slam of the heavy door, then backed out from under the hood of the pickup truck.  He wiped his hands as he stood upright and gave Richie a grin.

“So?  How’d she do?”

Richie grinned back at the big mechanic as he wandered across the cement and into the cool shadow of the garage bay.  “Great.  Runs better than it has in months.”

“Good.  Told ya adjustin’ the timin’ would help.  As long as we were in there, may as well tune stuff up.”

“Yeah.  She needed it.”  Richie nodded and looked down at his scuffed boots.  He shuffled his feet, realizing now was the time to reveal his financial problem to Eddie.  “Thanks, Eddie.  I don’t know what I woulda done if you hadn’t helped me out.”

A low chuckle rumbled from the big man.  “Happy to do it, Richie.  ‘Sides, in case you ain’t noticed, that’s what I do here… in this here service station and garage?”  He placed a heavy, drawling accent on the nature of his business.

Richie laughed quietly, looking up at Eddie.  “Yeah, I guess so.  But thanks for letting me help out.  I used to work on cars with my Dad… I kinda miss it.”

Eddie nodded understandingly.  “Somethin’ about a father and son bondin’ over an engine block, huh?”  He chuckled again, tipping his head toward the open hood behind him.  “Speakin’ of which… I gotta get this transmission finished up.  You wanna give me a hand?  Or are you plannin’ to hit the road?”

“Sure, I’ll help.  I’m not goin’ anywhere.”  Richie shrugged, giving Eddie a little nod.  “Well, except tonight.  Turns out Annie does want me to take her to that carnival.”

Eddie gave Richie a long look, an amused smile still on his ruddy face.  “She does, huh?  Ain’t that interferin’ with your travel plans?”

Richie shrugged again, feeling his cheeks color a bit under the man’s scrutiny.  “I’m not in any hurry to get on the road.  Jersey ain’t goin’ nowhere.”  Again he looked down, the admission of his poverty sticking in his throat.

“And neither is Annabelle,”  Eddie replied knowingly.  He chuckled again when Richie didn’t reply or meet his gaze.  “Alright, well… let’s get this trannie finished up.  Lance is comin’ to pick it up at five.”

“Okay.”  Richie nodded and stepped over to the pickup truck, picking up a wrench.  “What do you want me to do?”

For the next two hours Richie and Eddie worked side-by side, installing the new part and reassembling the engine.  As they worked Richie’s mind swirled with bittersweet memories of home and with gentle thoughts of his precious weekend with Annie.  By the time they closed the hood on the repaired truck, Richie’s heart squeezed with a dull ache of homesickness tempered by yearning for the woman waiting for him just across the street.

“Alright.  Go ahead and pull ‘er over to pump, fill ‘er up, then just park ‘er over there next to your Impala.”  As he gave Richie the directive Eddie gestured first from the pickup truck to the pump, then to an empty space outside the garage.  “I’m gonna go in the office and write up the ticket.”

“Okay.”  Richie nodded his dark head and moved to the truck’s driver-side door.  “Anything else?”

“Naw, just get somethin’ cold to drink and come on in the office.  You can sit in front of the fan a minute and cool down before we start sweepin’ up.”  Eddie wiped his greasy forearm across his face, which was now bright red and dripping with perspiration.  “Lordy, it got hot this afternoon.”

“Uh huh,” Richie agreed, swiping the back of his neck with a grimy hand.  He was drenched with sweat as well, thanks to the oppressive Southern humidity. 

Waiting for Eddie to move past him toward the doorway into the office, Richie climbed into the driver’s seat of the Chevy pickup truck.  The engine started with a loud rumble, then purred evenly as Richie put the truck into gear and carefully backed it out of the garage bay.

As instructed, Richie pulled the vehicle up to the gas pump in front of the station, then filled the tank with gas.  As he stood holding the nozzle Richie looked across the street at the glass-fronted diner.  A little smile curved his mouth when he saw Annie’s wave.  He raised his free hand in acknowledgement.

Once the gas tank was full Richie moved the truck to the designated spot.  He left the key in the ignition and wandered back into the garage bay.  Pausing to push a quarter into the Coke machine near the back door, Richie pulled a cold glass bottle from the rack.  He popped off the bottlecap and drank deeply, appreciating the chill that slid down his throat and into his belly.  He gave a little burp before turning toward the office door.

Richie hesitated, realizing the moment of truth had come.  He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, then stepped forward.

He just hoped Eddie would understand.

A dozen short steps carried Richie from the bay and into Eddie’s office, where he found the big mechanic squinting down at a receipt pad.  Eddie's beefy hand was clenched around a ballpoint pen as he scribbled on the tablet, marking boxes and noting figures in his sloppy handwriting.  Richie paused in the doorway.

“All done,” he commented when Eddie looked up, over the tops of his reading glasses.  “I’ll go ahead and start cleaning up.”  Richie raised the half-empty bottle again to his lips, taking another swig of the cold soda.

“Naw, naw…” Eddie waved a hand toward the chair beside his desk, where Richie had sat just two days ago.  “Sit.  Cool down a minute.  I’m almost done with this.”  He returned his attention to the bill in front of him.  “Just gotta figure up the tax and print up the tape.”

The brush of breeze from the oscillating fan across Richie’s skin felt good.  He shrugged and silently followed Eddie’s order, stepping over to lower his lanky frame onto the worn chair.  Another gust of breeze caught him in the face, ruffling his sweaty bangs and whipping the long tendrils of dark hair that had escaped from his ponytail.

Richie watched silently as Eddie’s fingers stabbed at the keys of a bulky adding machine.  Each click and whir of the printer across the rolled paper with each dollar amount entry made him wince.  It was literally the sound of money. 

With a flourish Eddie hit the ‘total’ key and the adding machine clattered animatedly.  It spit out a long strip of paper, printed with the figures for the pickup truck’s repair.  Eddie ripped the paper from the roll and perused it carefully.  Satisfied it was correct, he tore the multi-copy page from his tablet, separated the yellow copy from the pink and the white, stacked the paper strip from the adding machine on top of the pile, and stuck the papers into the mouth of an ancient stapler.  With a loud thunk Eddie’s fist pounded the stapler, fastening the invoices together.     

“Awlright.  Done with that.”  Eddie reached to toss the bill in the battered metal box at the corner of his desk.  “Oh, and while I’m at it…” He ruffled through the papers already in the outbox.  With a little grunt he extracted a similar stapled invoice, that had been folded in half.   He handed it to Richie.  “… This one’s yours.”

Richie swallowed hard as he reached to accept the folded paper.  He saw his name scrawled across the outside, in messy penmanship that he was sure matched the figures he would see when he unfolded the bill.  His head bowed as he dropped his hands to his lap, gingerly holding the record of debt in his long fingers. 

He had to try twice to make his voice work, but finally Richie forced the raspy mumble.

“Umm… Eddie?   I need to tell you somethin’…”

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Chapter 30


Annabelle froze, realizing the happy idea she had just chirped out in her gush over Richie’s talent.  She snapped her mouth shut before turning back to face Tillie.  Annie tried to give her a nonchalant shrug, but the gesture came off more as a sheepish slouch.

“Well… maybe not right away.”  Annie crossed her arms over her chest again, unconsciously closing herself off to unsolicited opinions.  “He said somethin’ about maybe staying here awhile.”

Tillie’s brow arched, easily reading her God-daughter’s evasive answer.   “Stayin’ awhile, huh?  Just how long is that?”

Annie shrugged again, then straightened her shoulders.  “Don’t know.  Just… awhile.”

“Really?  What’s he gonna do for awhile here in Darien?  Hang around Eddie’s garage and go out an’ play his guitar at that Juke Shack on Saturday nights?”  Tillie’s tone was accusing.

“He can get a job.  Maybe at the paper mill.”

Tillie shook her head.  “Annie, you know as well as I do that the Mill ain’t hirin’.  For Pete’s sake, they just laid off a buncha folks.  Mel Watson was tellin’ me his son-in-law Randy was there four years an’ they just sent him home.”

Annie’s lips pressed together as she bristled at Tillie’s practical argument.  She knew as well as everyone else in Darien that times were tough.  “Well, he can find somethin’ to do, I’m sure.   He’s a hard worker, Miss Tillie, and he ain’t afraid to get his hands dirty.”

Tillie clucked disapprovingly, though she didn’t disagree with Annabelle’s assessment of Richie’s work ethic.  From what she had seen the young man really wasn’t afraid of an honest day’s work.  She tried another tack, one she was pretty sure would elicit an honest response.

“And just when did Young Richie decide maybe he should stay in our little town awhile?  About the time you were takin’ care of him, out at your nice little house?  Cookin’ and cleanin’ for him and givin’ him a place to sleep?”

Annie’s jaw tightened.  “No.  Actually…”  Her expression softened as she answered Tillie’s accusatory question.  “It was when he was at church.”

OH.  Church.  So Sunday’s sermon moved him so deeply that he decided to stay in Darien and become part of the parish?”  Tillie snorted.  “That might be the first time somebody actually listened to what the Reverend Purdy had to say from that pulpit.”

Annie couldn’t bite back a chuckle at Tillie’s sarcastic comment.  But still, she didn’t appreciate the older woman’s judgmental inquisition.

“It didn’t have anything to do with the sermon.  Richie told me he just likes it here.  The people are friendly, he feels welcome… He said Darien is a nice place to live.  So…” She blushed slightly in spite of herself.  “So he thinks he’s gonna stay.”

Tillie gave Annie a direct look, seeing right through her front.  It was obvious to her that Annie’s argument was more in defiance of her Godmother’s opinion than it was in defense of Richie’s motives.  There was also no doubt from the little catch in Annie’s voice that her support of Richie’s plan was half-hearted.

The older woman calmly set her coffee cup on its saucer, then placed the dishes on the counter.  When Tillie spoke again her voice was gentler. 

“Annabelle.  You remember that time you and your Mama found that little puppy-dog over at the fairgrounds?  You were about eight or nine?”  She smoothed her hands over her apron and waited for Annie’s response.

Annie’s expression turned quizzical as her lips curved into a little smile at the memory.  She nodded slowly.  “Rascal?  Sure.” 

“That’s the one.  That skinny, scrawny little mutt that was wanderin’ around all alone, diggin’ through the garbage for scraps.  You and your Mama felt sorry for him so you took him home.”  Tillie smiled gently, remembering how Annabelle’s mother had a soft spot for strays, just like her daughter.  “You fed him and played with him and scratched him behind his ears, and that little puppy-dog followed you everywhere.”

Annie nodded slightly, realizing where Tillie was going with her parable.  “Yeah.  He was a real sweet dog.”

“That’s right.  And when your Mama heard about that family over in Jesup, whose little dog got loose and got lost tryin’ to find his way home… Well, she knew the right thing to do was to find out if that little puppy-dog she found belonged to some other child.  Even though her own little girl loved that dog.”

Annie felt a light sheen of tears mist her bright blue eyes, recalling the heartbreaking vision of the little dog peering out the back window of the family’s car as it rolled away down the drive.  She blinked rapidly and gave Tillie a half-hearted glare. 

“I know what you’re tryin’ to do, Miss Tillie.  But Richie ain’t somebody’s pet.  He’s a grown man.  He can make up his own mind about where he belongs.”

“I know, I know.  But sometimes men are like dogs, Annie.  You take ‘em in, you feed ‘em and scratch their bellies and show ‘em a little love….”  She smirked lightly.  “And they think they belong with you.  Even though they have a family… their real family… waitin’ on ‘em to come back home where they really belong.”

Annie saw in Tillie’s sympathetic gaze that the older woman could see through her fa├žade.  Her heart squeezed at the silent confirmation that her own instincts had been right all along.

*****

Eddie grunted quietly as he stood upright, his aching back giving a twinge of protest.  He set his wrench on the Impala’s engine block before pulling a grimy rag from the pocket of his overalls and swiping it over his sweaty brow.

Beside him, Richie ducked out from under the hood.  He reached up to pull a hand through his sweaty bangs, then down the back of his head to adjust the band that held his shaggy dark hair gathered into a long, damp ponytail.  The Georgia summer was fully upon them today.

“Okay, so that should about do ‘er.”  Eddie nodded at the big engine.  “Everything else looks fine.” 

Richie nodded mutely, both relieved and a little uncomfortable.  While he was glad his car was once again in working order, the time had come to reveal his poverty to the man who had so generously helped him.

“Umm… listen, Eddie…”

Richie’s tentative confession was cut short by the crunch of tires on rocky asphalt and a loud ding!-ding! warning from the fuel dais as a customer pulled up to the pumps in front of the shop.

Ignoring Richie’s arrested comment, Eddie turned to look at the arrival.  Recognizing the woman driving the big white Lincoln-Continental, he grinned widely and waved.

“Well hey there, Miss Gladys!”  Eddie gave Richie a sideways smirk before muttering from the side of his mouth. “She’s President of the P.T.A.  Knows everything about everybody in the county.  Nosiest woman in the state.”

Richie snorted softly.  “Well then, she probably knows about me.”

“You can count on that, Son.”  Eddie winked and stuffed the rag back in his pocket.

“You want me to go service her?”  Richie blushed slightly as he realized how his question could be construed.

Eddie chuckled.  “Naw, I got somethin’ to ask her anyway.  Marlene wants to know about the Fall Festival Committee.”  He took a few steps toward the waiting automobile before pausing.  He half-turned back toward Richie.

“Hey, why don’tcha run over to Tillie’s and grab us a couple burgers?  I gotta call in a parts order, so by the time Otis cooks ‘em up and you get back over here I should be done.  After we eat we’ll run your Impala out and see how she goes.”

“Okay.”  Richie nodded.  He shoved his hand in his pocket, feeling for the meager wad of bills crumpled there.  He wasn’t sure if Eddie intended for him to pay for their lunch, or if Annie would ply them with free burgers, or what.  He didn’t mind repaying Eddie’s kindness by picking up the lunch tab, but considering he couldn’t even pay for his auto repair…

Realizing it would be impolite to ask, Richie quickly swallowed his question.  He yanked his greasy hand from his pocket and turned toward the Impala.  Richie was careful to remove the abandoned wrenches from the engine compartment and return them to the tool box beside the Chevy’s front wheel before slamming the heavy hood down. 

As he felt the dull thunk vibrate up his arm Richie silently prayed that his car was indeed operational again.  It would give him the freedom to come and go as he pleased and remove the burden from Annie of having to drive him everywhere.  Though he believed her when she said she didn’t mind, Richie still felt as if he was taking advantage of her generosity. 

Well… He’d have freedom if Eddie would let him drive his car for more than a test run, anyway.  If Richie couldn’t work out some payment arrangement, the Impala may be sitting idle at the Texaco until he could come up with cash for the repair.  Richie’s expression sobered at the thought.

Turning away from the car, Richie started walking toward the brick-paved street and the little diner beyond.  His path took him past the fuel pump where Eddie was now conversing with the prim-looking middle-aged brunette woman through the driver-side window of the Lincoln.

“Oh!  Yoo Hoo!  Hello there!”  Interrupting whatever Eddie was saying, Miss Gladys called out to Richie in a cheery chirp.  Her manicured hand fluttered out the window, attracting Richie’s attention.

Richie stopped in his tracks, surprised by her call.  Then he turned to look toward the car window in acknowledgement of the greeting.  Richie grinned sheepishly at Eddie’s subtle eye roll for his benefit.

“Uh… hi.  Ma’am.”  Richie quickly remembered his manners.

“You must be Annabelle’s friend.”

Eddie chortled and came to Richie’s rescue.  “Oh yeah, sorry. Gladys, this is Richie.  Richie, Gladys Turnbull.”

Gladys beamed as Richie nodded politely.  “And how are you liking our little town of Darien, Richie?”

“It’s nice.  People are real friendly.”  Richie smiled, sincere in his assessment.

“And how long will you be staying?”  Gladys’ arched brows were almost comical.

“Uh…” Richie glanced at Eddie.  “I’m not sure…”  He cringed inwardly when he saw the big mechanic’s brow lift as well.

“We just got Richie’s car fixed up, so if’n she runs he can go whenever he’s ready,” Eddie interjected.  He tilted his head toward Tillie’s restaurant and gave Richie a look that clearly invited him to escape the uncomfortable situation.

Richie understood, but was only able to take one step toward the street before Gladys addressed him again.

“Well, if you’ll be in town a few more days, you’ll have to be sure to come on down to the Lions Club carnival!  Maybe bring Annabelle along?”  The cheery comment was more of a directive than a request.

Richie gave the woman a weak smile.  “That sounds like fun.  But I’m not sure if Annie will want to go…”

“Oh, of course she will! She’s been goin’ since she was a little girl.  We have the carnival every year.  It’s the highlight of the summer!”

Richie nodded and took a step backward, trying to hasten his escape.  “Umm… okay.   I’ll ask her if she wants to.”

“It opens tonight, down in Brunswick.  Rides are half-price!”  Gladys fluttered her hand at Richie again.  “Y’all can ride the ferris wheel together!”

“Uh, anyway Gladys…”  Eddie interrupted the woman’s now almost-frantic promotion of the carnival, stepping more fully in front of the car window and lowering his head.  “Marlene wanted me to ask you about…”

Richie saw his chance to escape and took it.  Quickly turning his back, he strode across the street and between the cars angle-parked in front of Tillie’s diner.  He breathed a sigh of relief as the tinkle of the bell announced his entry into the little restaurant.

Richie paused inside the door, looking around the room for Annie.  When he didn’t immediately see her he moved to the counter and settled on the stool at the far end, next to the jukebox.

Seconds later she pushed through the door from the kitchen, her serving tray laden with plates holding thick slices of fruit pie.  A smile automatically curved Richie’s mouth as he watched Annabelle deliver the desserts to a table of patrons on the far side of the room.

“Hey, Hippie Boy!”  Otis’ cheerful baritone pulled Richie’s attention away from Annie’s activity.  He gave the cook a little grin.

“Hey Otis.”

“You want somethin’ to eat?”

Richie nodded.  “Yeah.  Eddie sent me over for burgers.  To go.”

Otis nodded.  “You want fries or rings?”

“Umm… both, I guess?”  Richie shrugged, not knowing which fried burger accompaniment Eddie would prefer.

“Comin’ right up.”  Otis’ grinning ebony face disappeared from the window behind the counter as he hustled to prepare Richie’s order.

Richie turned on his stool to look again toward Annie’s last location.  He was momentarily startled to see her just a few steps away, now picking up a check and tip from the table immediately behind him.  He watched as she sweetly thanked the patrons, then stepped away from the table to turn her attention to Richie.

“Hey there.  You get your car runnin’?”  Annie’s question was quiet, her voice soft despite the noisy clatter of the bustling restaurant.

“Yeah, think so.  We haven’t driven it yet, but it starts up.”  Richie felt his stomach tighten a little as he thought of the conversation with Eddie that was coming.  “Gonna take it out after lunch.”

“Well, that’s good, right?”  Annie smiled brightly. 

“Yeah.  Then you won’t have to drive me all over the place.”

Annie chortled gently at Richie’s half-lament.  “I don’t mind.  It’s nice havin’ the company.”  She turned her head to glance around the room, checking to see that her customers were all content.  Her blonde curls swished softly over her shoulders as she returned her smile to Richie.

“But to celebrate, how about you take me out tonight?  You can drive me in your newly-fixed Impala.”  She smirked and leaned in a little closer, her voice dropping discretely.  “Maybe you can show me that broken spring in the middle of the back seat.”

Richie’s groin tightened a little at Annie’s not-so-innocent suggestion.  He gave her a little nod of agreement, hoping he would be able to oblige her request.  “Yeah… uh… I hear there’s a carnival in town.”

Annie’s grin widened.  “Eddie told you ‘bout that, huh?  It’s the Lions Club carnival, down in Brunswick.  They have it every year, to raise money for children’s homes and stuff.”

“Actually some woman named Gladys told me about it.”  Richie tipped his head toward the diner’s front window and the gas pumps beyond.  “She seemed pretty excited.”

Annie giggled.  “Gladys Turnbull?  Yeah, she gets excited about everything.”  Her blue eyes sparkled as she gave Richie a sweet smile.  “So, you want somethin’ to eat?”

“Otis is fixing burgers for me and Eddie.”

“Okay.  Wanna Coke?”

“Sure.”

“Comin’ right up.  Just lemme refill Mister Jackson’s coffee first.”

Richie nodded and watched Annie move along the counter and around its end to retrieve the coffee pot.  His expression sobered as he considered the plans he had just made, to take Annie out on a date tonight.  He didn’t know how he was going to pull that off, considering he had no money to spend on carnival rides or games… or on his car, to drive her there.

As he considered his predicament Richie’s gaze wandered aimlessly across the room.  It paused on an item in the far back corner, a shiny black and silver box on the wall next to the bathroom door.  Richie winced as he realized he had run out of options.

With a heavy sigh he pushed himself off the stool and wandered across the crowded little room.  He gave Annie a half-hearted smile in response to her inquiring look, but didn’t stop until he reached the pay phone. 

Ducking into the darkened little corner, Richie lifted the receiver from its cradle and held it to his ear before dialing “zero.”  A distant Southern woman’s voice sounded through the line.

“Operator.  How may I place your call?”

Richie swallowed hard.

“Collect call to six-oh-nine, seven-two-two, oh-one-one-eight.  From Richie.”