The Wayward Son

Lake Sedgwick (Monte Dutton sketch)
Lake Sedgwick (Monte Dutton sketch)

I’m proud of this short story. It’s long, almost a novella, and I could see it growing into a novel one day. If you’ll stick with it, it’s got a good message, but it requires acceptance of an ‘R’ rating and patience to get through all the drugs and sex before any lessons get learned.

  1. FEEDING THE LINE

“I been thinking,” Ben said, as his son climbed into the Silverado. “Me and you ain’t as different as we think.”

The boy didn’t reply. He was eighteen, thought he was twenty-one, and knew enough to be dangerous. He had his iPod and his iPhone and his earbuds, and his compact “gaming platform,” and Ben couldn’t remember whether it was a Playstation, or a Gameboy, or a Gamestation, or a Playboy, but only the last would have appealed to Ben at the same age. Playboy, eh? Wonder if it can be accessed online? Ben thought of Patti McGuire, the Playmate of the Year for 1976, with lust in his heart. There wasn’t much wrong with a little lust in his heart, nor was there was anything he could do about it. Even old Jimmy Carter admitted to that, or did when he was president. Ben first laid eyes on Patti McGuire when a junior-high-school friend pulled the issue out from under his mattress. He married Lily Fowler at the end of Reagan, and Clinton won a second term the year Darin was born.

Ben wasn’t married anymore and was satisfied he wasn’t going to not be married any less. He “socialized” with a few women, two of them divorced themselves, and but he didn’t see anything serious coming of it.

Darin was a good student. He’d played flanker and punted for the high school where his daddy and his granddaddy had also played. He and his mother apparently weren’t getting along very well, and Lily tried to hide, but not very hard, the fact that she wouldn’t mind being rid of him for a while. Most of the bitterness between them had faded away. Lily said she was worried about the boy. She didn’t like the looks of some of his friends, and had serious concerns about Darin’s girlfriend, who was a Sloan from over behind the college. Ben thought his wife capable of imagining character flaws that weren’t necessarily there. He figured that, if Darin hung around with him a while, he’d be able to size up the young lady for himself. Ben didn’t want to lose the boy the way he’d lost the boy’s mama.

What once had been a cabin on the lake was now Ben’s home. The boy was out of school, just back from the beach, and looking for a job. He was going to the University in the fall, said he wanted to major in pharmacy, or whatever a young man studied in undergraduate school that enabled him to enter pharmacy school afterwards. Ben had him for the weekend and, he hoped, longer. He’d been snooping around and thought the boy could get a job at the marina. In the meantime, they’d take the boat out fishing. Ben was on vacation for the next two weeks. They could do whatever Darin wanted, within reason. If the boy didn’t want to stay a while, Ben could take him back to town to get his car.

Ben didn’t have much to say to the boy as they drove to the lake. Darin had his music on, and, as the sun rose, fell asleep. Ben stopped at a drive-through and bought coffee and sausage biscuits. At the cabin, he told Darin to put his things away and meet him at the dock. He carried the fishing tackle down and waited. When the boy got there, he still looked sleepy, so Ben waited for him to sweeten his coffee and then headed out to his favorite inlet.

“You know, Darin, I always thought the hardest thing about being a parent was there ain’t no way to avoid being a hypocrite, and when a kid gets on up in his teen-aged years, he sees right through it. I don’t know how you get around it. A man finds himself jumping up and down, yelling at his kid for doing the same things he did cheerfully at the same age. Still, you feel fortunate you survived those years, and it scares you to death that your kid might not.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being a hypocrite,” Ben said. “It just means I feel bad about it.”

Darin was silent for a moment, considering what his father had said. “I appreciate that, Dad,” he said. “I guess I understand.”

“You got a bite, son,” Ben said.

The fish were biting. They caught a mess worth keeping. Crappie and bream, mainly, but Ben hauled in a good-sized bass.

“Dad, you still drink, right? Every now and then?”

“Yeah, I’ll drink a beer or six every couple weeks or so.”

“Well, you probably, you know, figured, I drink with friends now and then.”

“I can’t say it surprises me, Darin.”

“And I was wondering, you know, I think it would kinda be cool, you know, if we drank a little when we’re doing things like this.”

“I probably brought that on myself by volunteering the hypocrite stuff,” Ben said, and neither said anything for a while. Ben tried to think it through.

At last, he said, “I was right lucky when I was your age, Darin. It was legal for me to drink, beer at least, when I was eighteen. They changed the law that year, but it was phased in, a year at a time, so that, when I was nineteen, it was legal at nineteen, and then so on and so on. If I’d have been a year younger, I’d have been a year behind every step of the way.

“I didn’t think that was right then. Still don’t. If a man can serve his country at eighteen, if he can fight and die, well, then, he ought to be able to drink a beer. I think if society’s going to define what makes a man an adult, then it ought to do it across the board. Kids get to college, they’re gonna drink. Having a law that says they can’t isn’t going to work. It’s just going to make criminals out of the ones who ain’t got no sense or are unlucky.”

He took a deep breath. “But it is the law. I’ve always thought it best not to be a bad example, and, plus, your mama’s family is the kind that holds things against you. Anybody do something wrong, they always got something to throw in your face. ‘Why’d you wreck the car?’ ‘Well, it’s a wonder you didn’t wreck the car that time you got drunk with all your buddies at the football game.’ You’re, like, ‘Well, that’s not the issue here right now. I ain’t wrecked a car, not then, not now. You did today.’ It don’t do no good. They get mad at you for just pointing out the truth. If your mama hadn’t come up in that godforsaken family, she might not be so damned aggravating, and we might still be married, but she is that damned aggravating, and that’s just the way life is.”

“All right, then,” Darin said, sarcastic.

“Look, if you weren’t here, and I’s just fishing by myself, yeah, I’d have the cooler, and I’d sip on a beer or two.” He took another deep breath. “Sun gets a little higher, we’ll go back to the house and have some lunch, clean these fish. I’ll think about it. Maybe when we go back out this evening … Hell, son, it’s hard to get used to you growing up.”

When they got back to the cabin, Darin went out of his way to be industrious. He cleaned all the fish himself, told his daddy just to rest up. Pretty soon, Ben got a little drowsy and said he thought he’d take a little nap before they took the boat back out. Darin said that’d be good. He could play some games and watch a little TV. Ben retired to the bedroom. Darin gave it a half hour, crept down the hall, cracked the door, and saw that his dad was sleeping soundly. He walked out in the backyard. The swing set was still up, a holdover from when he was a boy, rusty and listing to one side. The table and chairs were as old as the swing set, whitewashed, it looked like, in the past year or two. Darin lit a cigarette and sent his girlfriend a text.

Everything’s cool. U?

Twenty miles away, Ellen Sloan, was at her job, assisting the local veterinarian. She’d worked there after school since she was sixteen. She hardly noticed the overwhelming smell of horse liniment anymore.

Working like a charm. Totally good 2 go.

When u off?

              Round 5. Get there at 7?

              Be bout rite. Luv u. Cya then. Gon be trippin.

Darin Fowler. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Darin Fowler. (Monte Dutton sketch

2. MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY

Ellen Sloan was quiet. She was plain. She could have been beautiful if she cared about it. She preferred forever to be underestimated. She seemed too shy for larceny, but that was her secret. The best way to pull off a crime was to avoid it ever seeming a possibility. She was also smart, which was why she had miraculously become the lover and accomplice of Darin Fowler. They were a smooth combination. He had the audacity. She had the expertise. In the fall, Darin was enrolling at the University. Ellen was transferring. She couldn’t get the degree she wanted at Gaines-Larsen. She wanted to become a pharmacist, too.

Poor pooch. She had to have a little surgery, but when Doctor Dalrymple was ready to perform said surgery, the little cocker spaniel became alarmed.

“Did you give this little doggie a dose of Ketamine?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hmm. That’s odd.” He looked at little dog’s eyes. He listened to her heartbeat. “Get me another dose, Ellen. I’ll administer it this time.”

There hadn’t been a first dose. It was in her purse. Ellen was glad the little dog didn’t suffer. Doctor Dalrymple was a kind man. It was all a matter of paperwork. The paperwork was going to look fine.

When she got off work, Ellen went to her apartment, which was reliably vacant now that school was out and her roommates had left. She had her directions. She brought water to a slow boil. She placed a plate atop the steaming pot. She poured a layer of Ketamine across the plate, went back into the den, turned the TV on, and set an alarm for her iPhone to go off in fifteen minutes.

Darin could be a general. He was adroit at having separate events all come together at the right time. He had a knack for factoring in everything and allowing for complications while minimizing them. And he loved her, and they were going places together, and they were going to make more money in those places than anyone else.

The afternoon turned hot and the fishing cold. The beer was cold, too. Ben didn’t have anything else to do, so, hell, he’d drink with the boy. All they’d had to do was clean out the refrigerator. Ben had nearly a case of Bud Light. So convenient. From time to time, Ben would reach into the water and douse his face. Beer seemed refreshing. It was actually dehydrating, but the nap came in handy. They put their beer in koozies. Ben said they stopped people who were out skiing but didn’t worry much about fishermen having a few beers. Joyriding wasn’t likely.

“You just don’t want to flaunt it, if you know what I mean,” Ben said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Darin …”

“I know better than to preach to you, and I’m one to talk. Don’t grow up too soon, though, know what I mean?”

“No, sir. I mean, no, sir, I won’t grow up too soon, and, yes, I know what you mean.”

Darin just sipped and watched his father’s thirst grow stronger.

“So, you like Bud Light?” Ben asked.

“It’s fine. I’ve never been able to buy beer. Just had to take what I could get. I reckon I like it all.”

“When I was your age, I didn’t ever have no money. I developed a taste for whatever was on special. I drunk a heap of Old Milwaukee and Milwaukee’s Best back in them days. I’d probably spit that shit out now. Bud Light’s all right. Lotta folks like Coors Light. Tastes like water to me.”

“Yeah, Dad, I reckon when I learned to like beer was when I made the varsity in the tenth grade,” Darin said. “I got to play, right off, and it got to where I was hanging out with all the seniors, and I guess one thing led to another.

“I got a little out of hand, I guess. I’m not near as wild as I was back then. You know, I didn’t never let it affect my grades, though. I got my work done. I think I’ve grown up a little.”

“Just be careful, son. I love you too much to lose you. When I look back on when I was a chap, hell, I’m lucky I survived. You know what we used to do when I was in college?”

“What?”

“We used to light out in a car full, with a case of beer and a quarter.”

“A quarter?”

“Every time we’d come to a major intersection, we’d flip the quarter. Heads, we’d go left, tails, we’d go right. We called them ‘destiny road trips.’ One time we saw Springsteen in Charlotte. We didn’t get there by flipping coins, but once we got close, we just figured that was what was in the cards. That was the destiny.”

“Good?”

“Aw, he was great, what I remember … which ain’t much.”

“Want to do that today?”

“What?”

“I’m just kidding,” Darin said.

Ben watched him pull out his cell. Apparently he’d received a text message.

Got about 3X estimated dosage. Yellowish-white. It’s fluffy. Scraped into empty med bottle. I’m bout ready to head that way.

              Kewl.

“I’m getting kinda parched, Dad. Want to head back in and fix up some some fish and french fries?”

“Aw, it’s just getting pleasant. Let’s me and you drink one more beer apiece.”

“Ah’ight,” Darin said. “I’m game.”

Darin pulled out a beer, popped the top, and handed it to his dad. Then he got one more for himself.

“That was, uh, my girlfriend texting me a minute ago.”

“What’s her name?”

“Ellen. Ellen Sloan.”

“Any kin to Jerry.”

“Uh, uncle, I think.”

“Jerry Sloan’s a basketball coach,” Ben said. “I’s just kiddin.’”

“No, she’s got an Uncle Jerry, I’m pretty sure. … Not … the basketball coach, though, but, anyway, is it all right if she comes over for supper.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s great. I’d like to meet her. It’s not gonna cause a problem if I’m a mite buzzed?”

Darin laughed. “Nah,” he said. “I think it might be better. She’ll think you’re cool.”

“Well, I am, then, I reckon,” Ben said. “I’m not drunk by no means.”

Nah. Course not.

              When they got back, Darin put the cooler next to his daddy’s chair, went inside, and commenced to frying fish.

Meet Ellen Sloan, Darin Fowler's girlfriend and partner in crime. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Meet Ellen Sloan, Darin Fowler’s girlfriend and partner in crime. (Monte Dutton sketch)

Though older than Darin, Ellen looked younger. She came in the side door and found him frying crappie. “I picked up some cole slaw at the Bi-Lo,” she said.

“That was sweet.”

“It was an impulse buy. I just thought of it when I was driving by.”

“What else you bring?”

She smiled, reached in her purse, and handed Darin the container. He looked on the label.

“Hmm. Meloxicam. Didn’t know it came in a powdered form.”

“It’s for pain and inflammation,” she said. “I took it one time when I strained my back playing volleyball. That’s why I had the bottle laying around.”

Darin touched his finger to his tongue and dipped it ever so slightly in the powdered Ketamine. He then dabbed a little on his tongue.

“No taste. Good.”

“I looked it up,” she said. “Chasing alcohol with Ket is a little dangerous. It’s not likely to cause a death, but he might get a little sick. Most of the deaths associated with Ket are from people who drowned in a tub or, you know, wandered out in the woods or something.”

“Go out there and introduce yourself to him. I can’t leave these fish right now. Dad knows you’re coming. Just sit with him a while, and make sure, you know, he’s not, like, seriously drunk. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible for my dad to get drunk on beer.”

She walked out on the patio.

“Mister Fowler,” she said. “I’m Ellen.”

Ben had turned his chair to the side, toward the water. He was staring at the last glowing pastel of the sunset, just visible over the edge of the trees. He didn’t have a beer. Several empties sat crumpled on the table.

He turned around, hopped his way with the chair, and said, “Well, ain’t you a sight for sore eyes? Call me Ben.”

“Nice to meet you.” She sat down.

“Ah, you’ll have to forgive me for my condition. I let my son convince me he’s grown up and old enough to be drinking with his old man. I tried to tell him he could do better, but ever since he broke the news that you were coming over, I tried to straighten up and be presentable.”

Beth wouldn’t have known he’d been drinking at all, which was good, she thought. They chatted. She told him she was interested in being a pharmacist, too, and she and Darin would be going to the University together come fall. She didn’t burden him with the news that she’d already had two years of college and was two years older. It was cordial. He was charming. He said he’d been remiss not spending enough time with his son since the divorce, and that he was trying to make up for it, now that Darin was out from under his mama.

“Well,” she said. “Dinner is just about ready, Mister, uh, Ben, and I’m going to go back inside and help out in the kitchen. Give me and Darin about ten minutes, and mosey right back on in.”

“Will do,” he said.

“I think he’s fine,” Ellen said to Darin once she got back inside. “He said he was trying to straighten up for me.”

“We’ll fix that.”

“He strikes me as a pretty nice dude.”

“He is. How much Ket you think it’s safe to give him? We don’t want to kill the old bastard.”

“I’d say anywhere between forty and eighty milligrams. Forty, probably, that would do it. I’ll stir it into his beer. We’ll have beer in glasses for dinner.”

“This is fun, isn’t it?”

“Kinda,” she said.

Ben made his way through the sliding door. “Y’all ready?”

“Have a seat, Dad. We’ll be right in with the food.” Darin lowered his voice. “Here. Use this platter and pour beers for each of us. For God’s sake, don’t mix them up. I’ll take the fish and fries. Table’s already set.”

He opened the refrigerator. “We’re getting a little low on beer. First, you go out on the patio and get the ice chest. There ought to be four or five left in there, at least. Then I’ll take the food in, and you get the beers ready.”

“You got the Ket, Darin.”

“Oh, yeah.” He reached in his pocket and handed her the container. “I might be just the least bit jangled from daubing a little bit of it on my tongue.”

She went to get the cooler. He caught her eye. “Feels good,” he said. “Relax. Everything’s cool.”

Ben Fowler takes a walk on the wild side, and he's not going to remember most of it. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Ben Fowler takes a walk on the wild side, and he’s not going to remember most of it. (Monte Dutton sketch)

 

  1. THE KIDS ARE EVIL

Darin and Ellen watched as Ben complimented his son for a surprising ability to fry tasty crappie. They had fish, fries, and the slaw Ellen had bought on the way, which wasn’t bad. Ben pushed back from the table and announced he had to “winky-tinky.”

“There was this episode of Cheers,” he said, as if the son and girlfriend had ever done much other than hear of it, “and Frasier says to Lilith, something like, excuse me, love, but I must go winky-tinky. So he walks away, and Lilith says, ‘Why must men euphemize?’ and Woody, he says … Woody says … shit … what did Woody say?”

“Woody said ‘shit’ on TV?” Darin asked. Ellen playfully punched him in the shoulder.

“Well, let me go piss,” Ben said.

As Ben walked to the bathroom, he started to wobble. Damn. Beer’s hitting me pretty good. His marksmanship was off, and he had to lean one arm against the wall of the bathroom. His head bumped the mirror as he washed his hands. He made it back to the table, but not without considerable effort, not just to walk without falling, but, trying to appear … normal. He sat heavily, missing the chair with one cheek but managing to slide himself over. He pushed the plate forward so that he could steady himself with his hands.

Something is definitely wrong.

When Ben shifted his gaze, it seemed as if his eyes were at too slow a shutter speed. A blur followed. Things got focused if he kept his gaze still, which, unfortunately, was very difficult. He settled on Ellen’s breasts, watched them rise and fall subtly with her breath, and meditated on how pretty they were. Her skin was so soft. He wished he could see the nipples.

“Darin.”

“Yes.”

“Your dad is, like, staring laser beams at my boobs.”

“I do that sometimes,” he said.

“He’s really messed up.”

“Let’s do a test.”

Darin was wearing cargo shorts, which had been useful for fishing. From the lower pocket of his left leg, he removed a small zip-lock bag containing crumbled marijuana and rolling paper. He handed it to Ellen. “You roll so much better than me,” he said.

“You’re crazy,” she said. “You’re going to smoke weed in front of your dad?”

“Two things. One, we’ll see if he’s so tore up he’ll want some. Two, we’ll see if he’s so tore down he don’t notice.”

“You’re despicable,” she said.

“Daffy Duck, too,” he replied.

Ben thought he was conscious. He might be dreaming. He really couldn’t focus enough to take up the matter. Everything seemed exaggerated. Ellen’s hair, a dirty brown, seemed brighter. Her breasts were larger. The smoke she was exhaling seemed excessively voluminous. It seemed as if he might be aroused, but he wasn’t sure. He … suspected it.

“I think he’s all right,” Darin said. “Don’t you?”

“Oh, he’s all right, all right.”

Darin started laughing.

“What?”

“You said he’s all right, all right.”

“Oh.” Pause. She started laughing.

“Let’s go out on the porch. It’s screened-in and cool. Breeze blowing. Moon over the water.”

Darin stopped and gave his father the once over. He looked up at Ellen. “He’s okay. We’ll check on him in a little while,” he said.

He’s talking like I’m not even here, Ben thought. Maybe I’m not.

They had been drinking in the back yard, under the trees, earlier. Ben had installed a hot tub there and poured the concrete patio around it. The mosquitoes were too prevalent now, so Darin and Ellen retired to the porch swing, which was screened in.

“Please tell me you’ve got a spare cigarette,” he said.

“I left my purse inside. Be right back.”

Darin sat quietly, listening to the crickets chirp, and watching the moonlight glisten on the waters.

“I bought these when I got the cole slaw,” Ellen said upon returning.

“Here,” he said, and she gave him the Marlboro Lights. “I love packing them and pulling that first one out.”

She gave him a light and tapped one out for herself, then leaned her head on his shoulder.

“You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve done this,” Ben said quietly.

“What?”

“Drugged somebody. It wasn’t really me. It was Teke. Like, two weeks ago, at school. I snuck out, and he picked me up. I’m probably lucky I didn’t get arrested.”

“Teke” was Te’Quan Bodie, Darin’s best friend.

“You know, last two weeks before graduation, well, Mister Washburn caught us, and he didn’t do nothing, but he just wanted to let us know he wasn’t buying it, Darin said, “so, just when we was pulling off, he yells, ‘Hey, how ‘bout bringing me back a cup of coffee?’ What we done was stupid and wrong, but it was kind of funny at the time.”

“So what?”

“Well, Teke and me got high and rode around, and then we went to the pizza buffet, and there was a crowd there, and I’m sure, word got out that we was looking pretty suspicious, so, anyway, we get through, and we’re going back to school, and Teke’s smoking a Newport, and he tells me to pull in the Quik Way, and I say, ‘Man, we gotta get back,’ and he says, ‘Naw, man, we gotta get ol’ Washburn a cup of coffee. So he’s smoking, and doesn’t want to go in, and so I go in, and buy a cup of coffee, you know, and I figure he’s got, sugar and whatever, and I’m just wanting to get out of there, so I get back in the car, hand Teke the coffee – I got a big, old cup – and Teke says, ‘We’ll fix his ass,’ and he pours something in the coffee and stirs it in.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know, but, last period, man, Mister Washburn went apeshit, yelled at his class, busted some glass in the chemistry lab. They had to get security, man, cart him off. I was scared to death, thought they’d, you know, the police, find out what happened. We were lucky. Turns out, Mister Washburn, he was on all these medications, and he, kind of, came around, you know, and they said his meds must’ve been off – they were all, you know, prescribed, for depression and shit – and he didn’t teach the rest of school, and I heard he got a leave of absence for stress.”

“And nobody asked y’all nothing?” Ellen asked.

“Nope. Reckon nobody saw it when he asked us to get him some coffee. I mean, Teke’s done graduated. Nobody didn’t even know he was around.”

“So that’s what made you decide to drug your father?”

“Well, you know, I did some research on it, and you said you could get Ketamine, and I’m kinda thinking, you know, I might move in over here with Dad, and, I thought, well, if I could get away with this, it might work, and if it didn’t work – if it don’t – then, well, I’ll go back to Mom.”

“It still doesn’t make sense,” Ellen said, but before she could say anything else, they heard a commotion inside. Someone was talking. The lights in the kitchen went on. Darin got up, walked over to the screen door, flicked his cigarette out into the yard, held it open so Ellen could do the same, and they walked back inside to find a middle-aged, attractive woman with a beehive that made her look like she just walked out of a seventies sitcom, something they might have watched for five minutes on TBS waiting for The Simpsons. She was carrying … a casserole.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I’m Maxeen Breslow. Me and your daddy is friends. You must be Ben, and this must be your girlfriend!”

“I’m Ellen.”

“That’s such a pretty name.” Then Maxeen saw Ben Fowler, slumped forward, elbows on the table, chin in both hands, eyes open but apparently unseeing.

“Uh, my dad’s had a little too much to drink, Ms. Breslow,” Darin said. “In fact, he’s had a lot too much.”

“What? Y’all give him some moonshine or something?”

“No, ma’am. Just beer. Lots of beer.”

She finally sat the casserole — it appeared to have asparagus in it – on the table.

“Y’all have been smoking weed, ain’t you?”

The muscles in Darin Fowler’s ass jumped.

“Ooh,” Maxeen said. “Can I have some?”

Ben’s eyes met Ellen’s and they both signaled an affirmation that the strangest things happened when people smoked weed.

Quietly, he asked, “You rolled two J’s, didn’t you?”

We can’t very well give the woman a roach.

              Ellen nodded.

“Let Maxeen have it. Do you have a lighter, Maxeen?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Great. I need to talk with Ellen for a moment. Excuse us. Make yourself right at home.”

Ellen followed Darin into the kitchen.

“All right, Dad’s gonna start coming around before long. It seems like we’ve got two options. One, we could slip a little Ket in Maxeen’s beer.”

“What’s two?”

“We could kill her.”

Ellen’s eyes widened.

“Gotcha,” Darin said. “I’m kidding. We got one option.”

Maxeen moved around the table next to where Ben was slumped.

“Ooh, this is good, Ben,” she said. “Want some?”

Ben still had that vision-blurs-when-it-moves thing going, but it seemed to be getting a little better. Maxeen looked a little better than he’d ever remembered, too. Perhaps it was the blurriness. He still didn’t feel confident in his ability to form words, but he tried to put a big hunk of kindness in his eyes. He put so much kindness in his shovel that it wound up being lust. He remembered feeling this way before, sort of like he was looking at the word through a fishbowl, or, maybe, he was outside, and the world was in a fishbowl.

Znah impah,” he said. What he meant was “it’s not important,” and, by that, he meant it was not important whether or not he was in the fishbowl or she was.

“Would you like me to give you a gun, Ben Fowler? I bet you would.”

Darin and Ellen peeked around the corner.

Maxeen turned the joint around backwards in her mouth, took Ben’s hands and repositioned them, took hers and tried to mold and open his lips, then she pulled the burning joint out long enough to say, “Can you take a deep breath, honey?” and she gave Ben Fowler a gun. A shotgun. In the vernacular.

Darin grabbed Ellen, put his arm around her waist, leaned her against the refrigerator, and said, “Fucking woman’s a pro.” They giggled and kissed.

“Now let’s fix Miss Maxeen a beer,” Ellen said. “She’s bound to be a bit parched.”

“Ben, are you coming around?” Maxeen asked. She put her right arm around his shoulders, her left in his lap. She let her fingers do the walking. “Part of you is.”

Ellen sort of crept in with the beer and tried to sit it next to Maxeen quietly.

“Y’all kids get back to what you’s doing when I got here,” Maxeen said. “Don’t you worry, Darin. I’ll take care of your daddy.”

They went back to the porch swing.

“This is, like, the most memorable thing ever,” Ellen said.

“Not over, baby.”

Beth was watching Ben and Maxeen through the window.

“Wow. She sure drank that beer fast.”

“Hah,” Darin said.

“What?”

“I just remembered. Know when Dad started telling that joke from Cheers, and he couldn’t remember the punch line?”

“Yeah. So?”

“He’s told me that story, like, twenty times. That’s the punch line.”

“What?”

“You said, ‘She sure drank that beer fast.’ In the joke, Lilith says, “Why must men euphemize?’ and Woody says, ‘I don’t know. Mister Crane drank that beer pretty fast.”

Ellen was silent.

“See, Woody was confusing ‘euphemize’ with ‘urinate.’ Get it?”

“Oh.”

Very carefully, Ellen moved her fingers to Darin’s shorts. She found his zipper, and, then, suddenly, yanked it down.

“I want to play, Darin.”

“Not yet. I got something to do. I need you to stay here, and, you know, make sure something crazy doesn’t happen.”

“I can’t imagine that.”

“I promise, as soon as I get back, I don’t care when it is, we’ll get stoned as the sun comes up, if need be, and make love so good.”

“I bet Freddy will pop right out now,” she said.

“Freddy?”

“I just gave him a name.”

“What’s the name of …?”

“My little kitty cat?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know.”

“I think the name should be a country.”

“What?”

“Something for Freddy to invade.”

“You’re sweet,” she said, and tried to get Freddy to pop out.

“I can’t,” Darin said. “I gotta go make a deal. For some weed. And, then, tomorrow, or, more likely, Monday, we’re going to go to the beach.”

“I gotta work.”

“No, you don’t. We’re gonna make enough money at the beach that you can quit.”

Inside, between Ben straightening out and Maxeen getting more and more jangled, they managed to get to the bedroom, careening down the hall in a fashion similar to when Ben had left the bathroom.

“Come on,” Darin said, and they walked into the den. His canvas bag was lying next to the fireplace. He reached in it and pulled out a revolver. He checked to make sure the safety was on and stuck it in the front of his pants.

“Why you got that?”

“It’s a thang,” he said. “Ain’t nobody gonna get shot. These are all buds. I’ll get back as soon as I can, but they’re gonna wanna sit around and shoot the shit a while.”

“Test the merchandise?”

“Yeah. A little. I’ll be back before long. You keep the lid on things here. I reckon my dad’s having a hell of a time he ain’t never gonna remember.”

Darin Fowler, armed. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Darin Fowler, armed. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  1. RECOVERY IN VARIOUS FORMS

Darin Fowler wouldn’t deal drugs with just anybody. Te’Quan Bodie was a smart kid. He’d been a soccer player, about the only decent one the Dark Horses had. He’d joined the football team to kick field goals as a senior, when Darin was one of four sophomores on a playoff team. Now Teke had finished two years at Packwood, a onetime women’s college that had been taken over by the state in the sixties and become co-ed around 1970. He was majoring in business administration, and the marijuana sales that paid for his education had been built around the principles of a Junior Achievement project at Dunnaree High School.

Darin met Teke and three others at the decrepit dock over the Dunnaree River where it emptied into Lake Sedgwick. It was eight miles from Morehouse Landing – Teke called it Poorhouse Landing – to Ben Fowler’s cabin on Lake Sedgwick proper. It wasn’t bad in the summer, when it was boat-accessible. In the winter, Bigelow Rural Electrification took the lake level down, which left the pier anchored in dried mud and kept developers away, and it was the part of the lake where the black folks lived.

Not that Lake Sedgwick was some high-dollar getaway or anything.

Darin reached in the console to see if he had any smokes. He found a pack with three wrinkled Marlboro Reds left. The widening river was colder than the lake, and its entry in the pool caused the Poorhouse air to be murky and wet. Most days didn’t get sunshine till the fog burned off around ten. When Darin started walking along the planks, he couldn’t even see the rails around the end of the dock, which was hexagonal and had snack machines in the middle and benches facing out.

“Who dat?”

“Darin!”

“Darin who?”

“Fuck you, Teke.”

“Come on, man. Where you been?”

The shapes emerged out of the fog. Teke, with his cornrows, beer in hand. Zarah Lord, whose hair was standard issue but arms covered in tats. Zarah, who’d played tackle, was a year out of Dunnaree and younger than Teke, now studying heating and air conditioning at Star Fort Tech Center across the water in Nance County. Jonny Clyde had been at Coker, playing baseball, but that hadn’t worked out, so now he was aspiring to become a full-time drag racer. Darin was surprised to find Sargent Rudd, who, as his name suggested, was white. He was the one Darin worried about. Sargent had the kind of hair-trigger temper he didn’t get from smoking weed. He was on something else, or that’s what Darin heard, as if it weren’t obvious. Sargent was the reason they all had guns and didn’t need to have them, both.

“Sup, ma brutha?”

“I’m sorry I’m running late. Been a long day. I’d tell you but it ain’t worth the long story,” Darin said. “It’s been some shit. Leave it at that.”

“Wuh, Darin, tell me this,” Zarah said. “You too good to hit on some kush wid us?”

He sat down. “I reckon I could stand a hit or … five. I can’t be here when the sun come up. Nowumsayin?”

“You a very important man,” Zarah said. “We need you to run the product. I likes that word, don’t you? Product. White folks’ word.”

“Medication.” Darin said. “That’s what it is. Medication.”

“Shit if it ain’t,” Jonny Clyde said.

Teke was rolling a blunt all the time. He sat down, held it in his fingers, smelled it, finally lit it, took a long hit, handed it to Darin. “You know why you the main man?”

Darin took a hit, handed it back. “’Cause y’all fucked up?”

“’Cause you a white boy,” Teke said. “’Cause you ain’t caring a nigga’s risk. Nigga be stopped at the Circle K, come out with a Kit Kat, pint uh chocolate milk, cops be saying, ‘what you be up to, black boy?’ If I say, ‘who you calling black boy, white boy?’ shit, he liable to shoot my ass. Tase me, anyway.

“Darin, you come out of that store with a satchel fulla cash, holding a gun, it be smoking, you look at the cop, say, ‘I just needed a loaf of bread, Officer,’ he be saying, ‘Tell yo daddy I said hello.’”

They all laughed, even Sargent, whose daddy was the magistrate.

“Well, shit, y’all,” Darin said, imitating a redneck, and taking another hit. “It ain’t my fault I’m white. I’m sorry they don’t treat niggas no better, but not like I’m gonna hope they start treating my white ass worse.”

“Exactly,” Teke said. “We gots to use your whiteness to our advantage, which, for us niggas, don’t happen all that often.”

“I’m here wid you,” Darin said.

Zarah put his buds in and started listening to Li’l Wayne, which Darin knew because all he ever listened to was Li’l Wayne. Jonny put his iPod on, too. “Y’all hash this out,” he said. “I know what the plan is, nowumsayin?”

Sargent was still interested.

“Look,” Teke said. “See, Sarge got a older brother, run a sports bar in North Myrtle Beach. I need you to make the delivery, today or tomorrow, and pick up the cash.”

“How much cash?” Darin asked.

“Two thousand bucks.”

“’Shit. How much is that? A pound?”

“You wanna see it?”

“I reckon I’m gon’ have to, being as how I’m hauling it to the beach.”

“Sho better drive the speed limit.”

“No shit.”

Teke unzipped the bag he had placed behind the bench. What emerged looked like enough grass to reseed a rich man’s lawn.

“It’s vacuum-packed,” he said. “Can’t smell it. It’s loud as fuck. Kentucky weed. Smell ‘xactly like a skunk.”

Teke tossed it to him. Darin held it in his hands. Amazingly, it probably really did weigh a pound, and that took a lot of bud.

“I’m gonna stash it under the spare tire,” Darin said. “I been thinking about this. You reckon I could siphon off some money for a motel room at the beach? I mean, I ain’t slept. I could go down there today, but I’m gon’ have to sleep sometime.”

“You got yo’ woman widja?”

“Ellen. She’s, uh, in on this, too. She helped me. I’ll tell you sometime.”

“Five hundred of it’s yours,” Teke said. “Do what you want. Just bring me back fifteen hundred. That cool?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“We got us a little network. I’m selling at Packwood. Zarah’s got Tech. Jonny say there’s a market at the drag strip. Sargent, here, he’s headed off to …”

“Starling Military. I’m gon’ play ball a year and go to Georgia,” he said.

Yeah, that’s gonna happen, Darin thought.

“Toke up one more time?” Teke asked.

“Man, I gotta get going.”

“Come on. One more.”

“Don’t be a pussy,” said Sargent, whom Darin had never liked.

Darin got higher than he should have. He stayed an indeterminate while. Things got too slow for Sargent. He left, saying he had to go get him some pussy. Darin thought a snort of something was more likely. Zarah and Jonny got off on their music. Teke walked him to the car

“You know how we always said it was all in dealing with people you can trust, Teke?”

“I know what you gon’ say. What the fuck Sargent Rudd be doing here? His brother’s big bidness, mon. We get in at the beach, find somebody we can trust at Coastal Carolina, shit, I think I know somebody now. We just got to make sure we got people with some sense finding other peoples with some sense. Bidness require a system. It’s all training.”

“You training Sarge?”

“Naw. Ain’t worth doing. It’s a problem. Probably take care of itself. I’m keeping him at a distance. He stupid enough it won’t be no problem. His daddy pull some strings if he don’t fuck up too bad.

“Look, you clean five hundred dollars off this little trip to Myrtle Beach. You get back by Tuesday morning? You’n make five hundred more.”

“You da boss, Teke.”

“You want it, me ‘n’ you be partners, my brutha. Nowumsayin?”

Ben Fowler’s first sensation upon awakening was that he had a hard-on, and that was odd. Then there were the two shapely female legs wrapped around his head. He lifted his head, which wasn’t easy, and managed to determine that the woman who’d spent the night with him was Maxeen Breslow, who, among her many qualities, was married.

Why was she here?

Then Ben remembered seeing her at Ingles. She was what people called “a card.” She had an outrageous sense of humor, laughed easily, and it was fun to flirt with her. She’d asked how he was doing, and he’d told her he had his son, Darin, for the weekend, and they were going to fry some fish, and, shoot, she ought to come over and have supper Friday night. It was one of those invitations that were issued without any hope of anyone actually accepting them.

I sure hope Jack’s out of town.

Ben could remember the conversation with Maxeen, two or three days earlier. What he couldn’t remember was any detail of how she wound up in bed with him, or her even being at his house, or anything after he and Darin came in off the lake.

He didn’t really have any desire to interrogate Maxeen, and what he really wanted was for her to get up off him and sneak out. He didn’t want to let her know that he hadn’t a clue what had happened. The truth would certainly be received as a lie. He needed to think this through. He needed to think, period. He closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

When he left, Darin had come down from the rush, and said aloud, several times, “I’m fine,” but the marijuana had a cumulative effect that left him absentminded. Then there was the absence of any sleep. He had some confusion as to how he would get back to Ben’s house, which was ridiculous because he had driven there many times. He hadn’t ever gotten there from where he’d been, though. He needed to stop and get his bearings straight. At the crossroads, where a little unlined blacktop intersected the highway, he noticed that the Circle K was open, which, in turn, meant it was after six o’clock, and it occurred to Darin to look at the green digital light on the stereo, which, sure enough, read “6:07.”

He stopped and walked inside, past the counter to the drink cooler, where he got himself a cup of coffee. When he walked up to the counter, a skinny black kid looked at him with the fear of God in his eyes.

“Just don’t shoot, man.”

Darin vaguely recognized the kid. He was a sophomore, maybe. Rising junior. It seemed like he played in the band.

“What? You think I’m a robber, man? Just give me a pack of Marlboro Lights. And this coffee.”

The boy fumbled with the pack.

“On the house, man. I got ‘em.” He sat the smokes on the counter. “Need a bag?”

“No, man, I’m good,” Darin said. He took a ten out of his wallet. “This ought to cover it. Keep the change.”

He walked out the front door and said to himself, “That’s odd,” and got back in his Mazda. When he sat down, he felt something in his right butt pocket. He kept his wallet in the left.

The gun. When he’d walked past the counter, the kid had seen the gun.

Darin addressed himself once more. “What a dumbass.” It applied to the kid and himself.

Darin found Ellen asleep on the chesterfield next to the window. He sat on the edge, where her buttocks pushed against the back, and touched her lightly on the shoulder.

“What?” she said, alarm flashing briefly in her eyes. “Darin?”

“I promised you I’d wake you when I got back.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost seven. It took a while. Had to socialize. Come on. Let’s go out on the porch.

“It’s cold,” she said. “Why come it’s cold in the summertime?”

“Lake. It’s from the water. Cools the air.” He took off his hoodie and gave it to her.

“Want some? Teke gave me a little. On the house.” He reached in the pouch of the hoodie Ellen already had on.

“Kiss me first.” He did so. “I can taste it on your tongue.”

He lit the blunt Teke had rolled and included with maybe half an ounce. He handed it to her. He also put the baggie back in the pouch. “Don’t drop that on the floor or nothing.”

It was peaceful. Bluish fog wafted above the lake’s surface. A chill breeze ruffled the leaves of the trees. He thought he could hear fins swishing softly in the distance. Crickets chirping. He even heard the tiny hum of electricity in the light that illuminated the driveway from its perch atop a treated pole.

“I did something real stupid,” he said, and told her about the incident at the Circle K.

“My God,” she said, “were you high?”

“Well, duh. I’m just kicking myself, man. I can’t be doing shit like that and not be straight. I thought I’d, you know, come down from the high, man. You ever do something and just be saying, ‘What a stupid fucking way to go to jail?’”

“Nah, I been trying to avoid it.”

“You know, you focus on what you’re doing, and you can manage that, fine, you know. Both hands on the wheel. Watching the speed limit. And then you’re like, damn, where was I going?”

“You don’t think that kid’s gonna call the cops?”

“I don’t think so,” Darin said. “He knew who I was, though. He was probably scared of me, you know, football player and all that. He ain’t gon’ talk to the cops. What he’ll do, though, is he’ll tell the story to his friends.”

“That’s the way rumors get started.”

“Damn straight. I’m doing enough shit to get in trouble. Ain’t no sense, you know, testing fate.”

“Relax, baby. Didn’t nothing bad happen. Ooh, what’s this here? What’s wrong with Freddy?” Ellen yanked down his fly … again. This time she brought him out to play. “Ooh, Freddy’s cold. Hold on, Freddy.” She had a condom. Tore open the pack. Wrapped it around Freddy.

“Poor baby,” Ellen said. “I think he’s starting to shiver.”

Ben Fowler just doesn't know what to make of things. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Ben Fowler just doesn’t know what to make of things. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  1. ONE TO TALK

Finally, Ben Fowler was able to outlast Maxeen Breslow. Sleeping wasn’t easy with a pair of female legs wrapped around a man’s head. It could cloud judgment. Ben still wasn’t right. He’d tried to pray himself to sleep, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, but then he’d started asking the Lord to bless and forgive his son, Darin, and his mother, and then his mind had wandered off in the most unusual of directions. He couldn’t remember the details now, but he’d realized, after an indeterminate period of fantasizing, that he was supposed to be praying, so he’d tried to take up where he left off, but it all got hazy, and, at last, he’d tumbled off to sleep again, and when he awakened, Maxeen was gone.

Somehow, that Ben could remember, but hadn’t a clue what else had happened, and he thought his fantasy might have had something to do with some far-fetched scenario that might result in being in bed with a married woman at five in the morning. He didn’t think it was something that would have happened from drinking beer alone, but something had caused his blackout. When he walked through the den, Ben couldn’t help but notice that his son and his girlfriend – he barely remembered her being there, couldn’t recall her name – were passed out on the chesterfield, lying naked and intertwined. He stared blankly, walked over, pulled the blanket up over them. The girl rustled a little, sort of tucking the blanket around her breasts, and Ben walked into the kitchen, where he managed to remember how to work the coffeemaker.

He sat at the table, waiting for the coffee, feeling awake but still dull. He was suspicious of Darin, thinking the boy surely must have something to do with it, drugging him or something. On the other hand, he couldn’t say. Whatever had happened, Darin and the girl were likely going to know more than nothing, either that or they’d gotten wiped out dabbling in the same stuff that had waylaid him. Occasionally, he caught a whiff of something in his nostrils. What was that? It reminded him of his youth, one of those smells that seem so familiar and evoke memories. The smell of manure at a cattle barn. The sour odor of a high-school locker room. The aroma that shoots out of a Pabst Blue Ribbon when the top is popped.

Something like that.

When Ben started to pour the coffee, he realized he hadn’t put his glasses on. Until then, the blur hadn’t registered in his consciousness. He shuffled slowly back to the bedroom and found them in the sheets. It was a wonder they hadn’t been broken. It was the first time he felt lucky. When he returned to the kitchen, the girl was sitting at the table.

“Good morning,” Ben said, trying to hide that he couldn’t remember her name. “Cup of coffee?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

He got up before she could, reached up in the cabinet for a cup, poured it, sat it in front of her, and pushed the sugar, Sweet ‘n’ Low, and creamer in her direction. Then he sat back down, hoping she’d say something, and, with a little luck, something that included her name.

“Are you all right?”

“I’ve been better,” he said. “I can’t see how it’s possible I got that drunk.”

“Are you on medication?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I take something for blood pressure, and cholesterol, and, oh, yeah, something for my back and knee pain. It’s not a painkiller. I won’t take them. It’s for, what, inflammation, I think.”

“It could’ve been some kind of reaction, you know, the alcohol with the medication.”

“I never had that problem before.”

“Do you drink fairly often?”

“I generally keep some beer in the Frigidaire,” Ben said. “I don’t often drink more than a couple most nights.”

“Well, you never can tell,” she said. “By the way, lest you think I’m some kind of know-it-all, I’m studying pharmacy, though it’s just undergrad.

“Mister Fowler, you were pretty wasted last night.”

“I gathered as much.” He thought her beautiful in the frail morning light. Hair tousled. Unmade up. Even in the shadows, her skin had the radiance associated with the aftermath of lovemaking.

“How’s Darin?”

“He’s dead to the world. We stayed up real late. A long time after you and …”

“Mrs. Breslow.”

“That woman’s crazy, Mister Fowler. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s a lot of fun.”

“Um, yeah.”

“Are you two seeing each other?”

“That’s the first time she’s ever been in this house. I don’t know why in the hell she came.”

“I mean, this is none of my business, Mister Fowler, but does she, like, sell pot to you?”

“No.”

“Oh,” Ellen said. “I just thought, since she brought that big bag with her …”

That was one mystery. Ben knew what the smell in his nose was now.

“This sure is good coffee, Mister Fowler. I’m so tired, though, I don’t think it’ll do a bit of good. I’m gonna tumble right off to sleep again. Would you mind if I, like, went back to sleep in Darin’s bedroom. I’d kind of like to spread out.”

“Be my guest,” Ben said. Jesus. It’s the Redneck Playboy Mansion. The Playboy Cabin.

He smiled to himself. At least he was getting a sense of humor back. He was still in a poor bargaining position. He couldn’t very well make any accusations because, literally, his own house was in disorder. He didn’t want to reveal how little he knew. He had his pride, but, also, his instincts, and he could call bullshit on the girl’s suggestion that he’d taken a trip from drinking beer and taking medication. Sitting on the table in front of him was the little pop-off container where he kept his nighttime pills.

He’d never gotten around to taking them. He figured it might be a good idea to take them now. The girl’s theory might have been innocent. Maxeen might have been responsible, though he’d never figured her for a rampaging woman of the night who went off looking for unsuspecting men to drug and rape.

He’d just thought Maxeen was a lot of fun.

 

Darin Fowler, on the road. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Darin Fowler, on the road. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  1. GONE TO THE BAD

Ellen Sloan was asleep in Darin’s bed. Darin was more than asleep on the chesterfield in the den. He appeared comatose. Ben Fowler stared at him from the kitchen table and found himself watching the slow rise and fall of his son’s chest.

This wasn’t particularly amusing. Ben needed to get out on the water while it was still early and a man could think. He left the jon boat on the bank and took out his old powerboat, a 1997 Bayliner. He hadn’t been using her much lately, but she cranked right up, and he just puttered on out into the main channel, barely shoving the accelerator past idle. Ben wasn’t of a mind to throw her around. He was of a mind to sit still, at anchor, in the middle of the lake, where he could squint at the rising son, read a little Elmore Leonard, and think things through. It was nearly eight in the morning. He hadn’t had a bite to eat, but he brought a thermos of coffee with him. He gave himself a little shade with the Bimini top, but it didn’t offer much because the sun was low. He propped up his feet and commenced to reading a good, pitiless crime novel.

Hell, he didn’t want to fish. He didn’t feel like eating. He couldn’t concentrate enough to read. He could brood with the best of them, though.

There wasn’t much happening on the lake. Ben reckoned the fishermen were all posted in their spots, and it was a tad early for the skiers. A warden dropped by after a while. Ben wasn’t looking for any companionship but didn’t mind it.

“Ben, what? Ain’t biting?”

“Ain’t even tried, Hubert. I’m just out here a-thinking.”

“How you been? Ain’t seen you much.”

“I been fairly busy,” Ben said. “I’m on vacation right now. I couldn’t narrow it down between Vegas, Cancun and Hawaii, so I just settled for right here.”

“How’s your boy?”

“Sound asleep on the couch right now. He’s been with me since Thursday.”

“He sure was a good football player,” Hubert Gervais said.

“That he was.”

“He playing ball in college.”

“Nah,” Ben said. “I reckon he’s off to the University in a couple months.”

“I heard tell he was clicking up his heels a little.”

Ben squinted. “Hubert, that’s a mighty polite way of saying you heard something ain’t right.”

“It ain’t none of my business, Ben. I just heard the boy was gone to the bad a little. Ain’t nothing unusual about it. They been known to get a little wild when they’s getting ready to be college boys.”

Ben didn’t reply, for a minute.

“All you’n do is your best, Hubert. Can’t live their lives for ‘em.”

“Yep,” Gervais said. He spit tobacco over the side. “I reckon I’ll be running along. Come see me sometime, y’hear?”

“Ah’ight, Hubert. Hope ever’thing’s quiet for you this weekend.”

“That’s why I got the early shift, Ben. Get out of here before shit starts hitting the fan.”

“That’s smart.” He watched Gervais slide away and head for the Fairlane Bridge.

When Darin awakened, he rousted Ellen from the bed and urgently told her they needed to get going. She was cranky and said she wasn’t going anywhere till she got some coffee in her. They sat down at the kitchen table where she had confronted Ben earlier.

“Babe, you said you couldn’t get off work, right?” he asked.

“Yeah. Remember, you said we were gonna make so much money, I didn’t need to work.”

“That might have been a little strong, but, listen, we can go down there today, spend the night, and be back by tomorrow evening.”

“That’s Myrtle Beach you’re talking about, right?”

“Yeah. I got a delivery to make. We can spend the night. We can’t stay in no high-dollar joint, but we’ll have a good time. I mean, the beach is the beach.

“By the way, where the hell is my old man?”

“I haven’t a clue,” Ellen said.

“Well, let’s get out of here before he gets back. I’ll get myself cleaned up when we get checked in a motel.”

Darin drove through the country and reached the interstate fifteen miles south of Dunnaree. He was fighting the wheel and pulled off at a Hardee’s, where he and Ellen drank coffee and ate loaded-omelet biscuits. They refilled their coffees, Darin punched in Myrtle Beach on his phone GPS and turned the driving over to Ellen, who said she felt reasonably rested.

“I’m still beating myself up over doing something so stupid at the convenience store,” he said, lighting a joint. “I’m not gonn smoke weed no more when I’m on business. I can’t afford to be stupid.”

The irony occurred to Ellen. She said she didn’t want any. She figured it was all she could do to drive. A little weed put Darin to sleep, and she managed to get the roach out of the ashtray and wrap a napkin around it. She stashed it in her purse.

Ben found a note, in Ellen’s handwriting, he figured, on the kitchen table, informing him that they were going to a concert and staying overnight with some of Darin’s friends in Columbia. At least Ben knew what her name was. That’s about all the note was worth. It did remind him that he needed to perform the sheepish task of talking to Maxeen. He didn’t even have her phone number. Fortunately, she had his. The phone hadn’t rung while he was out on the lake talking to the game warden. This may have been because Ben hadn’t turned it on.

If Ben could have possibly been more sheepish, the message would have made it worse. Maxeen said Jack was back from his business trip to Knoxville, and, so, they’d better avoid each other, but she sure had a great time, and she’d let him know when the coast was clear, and, by the way, that weed his boy and his girlfriend had was the best she’d ever smoked. She thought they made a sweet couple.

Aw, Jesus. Here’s another problem that’s just not gonna go away, and so much for the notion that Maxeen Breslow brought the weed. Wonder what else Darin and Ellen are into?

Darin hoped to discover that Sargent Rudd had an older brother considerably smarter than he was, not that it was any great feat. He awakened near Conway, almost there. Getting to the coast by the middle of the afternoon simplified things considerably because he wouldn’t have to make the transaction at night, amidst a raucous bar scene. Darin left a message with Johnson Rudd as Ellen drove across the Intracoastal Waterway, and they checked in a Days Inn on the way into town. Sixty bucks. Wasn’t bad.

They had just moved their small bags into the room when the cell rang.

“John Rudd. This Darin?”

“Yeah. I got your stuff.”

“You got someone with you?”

“Yeah.”

“Great. How well do you know Myrtle?”

“Pretty good,” Darin said. “I been coming down here all my life.”

“So you know how to get to Broadway at the Beach?”

“Sure.”

“Have you ever been to the minor-league ballpark?”

“It’s near there, right?”

“At the intersection where the sign points to the ballpark off to the right, get out of the car, put your travel bag on your shoulder, and start thumbing a ride. Text me when you get there, and I’ll drive by and pick you up. Put the product in the bag, and I’ll pay you in the car. Have your friend drive back to the motel, and I’ll give you a ride back.”

On the way, it occurred to Darin that someone else could stop to pick him up before Rudd got there. He mentioned it to Ellen.

“You look like hell,” she said. “Ain’t no danger of that. Except, maybe, a hawngry woman. I’m assuming this Johnson Rudd is a man.”

“Good point. Here’s hoping he’s not a gay man.”

“Yeah,” Ellen said cheerfully. “That could be dicey.”

Darin hit the “send” button for the message he had already typed. He had his wits about him now. He was feeling slick and efficient. He pulled his bag out of the back seat, figured it was good he had the pistol, just in case of gayness, watched Ellen drive away, sat the bag down, yawned, picked it back up, slung it on his shoulder, and stuck out his thumb. He’d seen it in the movies. He wondered what kind of vehicle Johnson Rudd would be driving. He imagine it black and thought maybe it would be a Lexus sedan. Maybe an SUV, if he had a family.

A black Lexus SUV pulled up. Darin climbed in.

Johnson Dorn looked a lot like his younger brother, ten years older and with a bit of a paunch.

“Um, Sargent says hey.” Darin didn’t know what else to say.

“Yeah, I’m sort of surprised it’s you and not him.” He pulled up his sunglasses, anchored them in his hair, and looked at Darin. “You’re the football star, aren’t you?”

“I did all right,” he replied, all fake humble.

“Going to college?”

“Not to play ball. I’ll be at the University in the fall.”

“Great. Why you dealing weed?”

“Need some spending money, man.”

“Don’t we all,” Rudd said, handing Darin an envelope. “Two grand. Count it.”

Darin stuffed the envelope in his pocket instead. The bag was between his legs. He reached over and unzipped it and pulled out the weed, which would have made a comfortable pillow.

“It’s vacuum-packed,” Darin said. “No smell.”

“Good?”

“Real good. Some of it made me stupid last night.”

“Can’t wait to try it,” Rudd said. “So, Darin, you and my brother are friends?”

“I wouldn’t say friends. We know each other. He’s been out of school a couple years. We were on the same team when I was a sophomore.”

“Keep your distance from him,” John Rudd said. “Sargent’s got a lot less sense than I do, and I ain’t got enough.

“That your motel?”

“Uh, huh.”

Darin finally got around to counting the money. Twenty hundreds. Nothing to it.

“Nice to meet you,” Rudd said as he let Darin out. He handed him another hundred, just for his trouble. “I expect we’ll be bumping into each other from time to time.”

Darin got himself shaved, showered, and otherwise spruced up. Ellen was already freshened. They split a joint, sprayed copious amounts of Febreze around the room and stashed their weed, just for safety’s sake, made sure they had gum, and bolted the room for some steak and baked potato at the Ryan’s Family Steakhouse. Then they wasted a little money at an amusement park, left before midnight and returned to the room for private fireworks display.

Back at the lake, Ben Fowler was in the middle of what he called “mulling time.” It wasn’t intensive. He didn’t concentrate on it. He ruminated while watching television, reading Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream, and the Lake Sedgwick Briefs. Sometimes he just took his binoculars out on the porch and watched the lake from his rocking chair. He watched fishermen fish, skiers ski, and divers dive. He only thought about his son, though, and the terrible predicament surrounding him.

While Darin and Ellen were having submarine sandwiches and preparing to drive home, Ben was entertaining a visitor at the cabin. Luke Lucroy strolled over after church. The last time Ben had been to church, he remembered that Jack and Maxeen Breslow had been there, too. He bet Maxeen never missed preaching. That’s what he was thinking to himself when he saw Luke standing at the front door in a coat and tie. Luke came over from time to time. Coincidentally, he was Ben’s only close friend in law enforcement.

After exchanging greetings, Ben said he’d make Luke a cup of coffee, and they could go out on the porch and chat. The yard was shady, and it still wasn’t too hot. He put the two cups on a tray with some sugar, cream, and Sweet ‘n’ Low, and joined the deputy sheriff on the porch. They each stirred their cups and sipped a little before Luke got around to the point of his visit.

“Ben,” Lucroy said, “I ain’t got no business letting you know about this, but they’s other folks ain’t got no business plotting things the way they are, neither. Your boy ain’t around, is he?”

“Well, no, Luke, he’s been over with me the past few days, but he’s off in Columbia, according to a note he left. He was asleep when I left the house, and when I got back, he was gone. I don’t know whether what he wrote was the truth or not. He’s got his girlfriend with him. You know how that is.”

“He got any reason to be in Columbia?”

“Darin’s going to school there in the fall.”

“Well, here’s what I got to tell you,” Lucroy said. “Last night, Sargent Rudd, the son of the magistrate, got picked up fighting at the country joint next to the Fairlane Bridge. When they searched him, they found two or three packets of marijuana and five or six little bags of cocaine stashed in his cargo shorts. Not only did he have way more than enough on him to be booked with ‘intent to distribute,’ but he most certainly was distributing. I expect all the ones what had been distributed to got out of there right quick when they knew the cops was coming.”

“What’s all this got to do with Darin?”

“Well, Ben, you know, the Rudd kid’s got a little clout because his daddy’s the Dunnaree magistrate. My guess is he’s gonna get off either scot free or with next to nothing, but he’s gonna have to give them some names. I know for a fact he’s already named Darin as being involved with him selling drugs, and my guess is, he’s going to be involved in setting up Darin and the others to take the fall. I believe the other three he’s named is all black boys.”

“Aw, hell, Luke, that’s what I been doing all morning is trying to think things through,” Ben said. “Shit. Let’s just say I’ve had my suspicions.”

“Well, look,” Lucroy said, “they ain’t got nothing on your son, you hear? Does he know you’re onto him?”

“I’m not sure he cares all that much.”

“Have you said anything to him?”

“Not yet,” Ben said. “Ain’t had the chance. That’s why I been wasting so much time thinking.”

Lucroy finished his coffee and got up. “I guess it goes without saying, Ben, that I didn’t never come by here today.”

Ben nodded. “I appreciate it more than I can make up to you right now, Luke. They say my boy’s real smart. If that’s true, he’ll come out of this with a lesson. This might just put the fear of God in the boy. Damn, dope’s a powerful thing, though. Bottom line, if he ain’t smart, he’s stupid.”

 

If you're enjoying this story, I expect you'd like my novel, The Intangibles.
If you’re enjoying this story, I expect you’d like my novel, The Intangibles.
  1. TWO TALKS

Back from the beach, Darin Fowler avoided his father. Seeing the absence of his truck in the drive, he and Ellen Sloan quickly unloaded the trunk, and Darin stashed the fifteen hundred he owed Te’Quan Bodie in an empty can of Maxwell House coffee that he placed on the top shelf of his bathroom closet and then covered with wadded-up clothes he seldom wore. Then they drove into Dunnaree, had the pizza buffet, played pool, and drank Pepsi because they didn’t have Coke, Darin was eighteen, Ellen twenty, and for them, drinking beer just wasn’t an option. They went through a DUI checkpoint on the way back to the lake, and Ellen remarked that they sure were lucky.

“Nah,” Darin said. “I don’t hardly ever drink. When I do, it ain’t but a couple. It’s a lot less likely to get nabbed for weed, as long as it don’t smell and you not, you know, obviously tore up. I don’t never let myself get that way. We’re cool, baby.”

They were tired, too. When they got back, Ben was in bed. Darin and Ellen slept in the room across the hall and didn’t make a racket. Darin was in the habit of getting about six hours’ sleep, anyway, so he crept out of bed early.

“What?” Ellen asked, stirring.

“I’ll be back in a little bit,” Darin said. “I got to get a little something done before Dad gets up.”

He kissed her. “You gonna be able to get yourself up for work?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I might as well get on up. Get some coffee on, will you?”

“Yeah,” he whispered, “but I gotta get loose before Dad gets up.”

“You gotta take Teke the money?”

“Yeah,” Darin said, “and pick up some more. I’m meeting him out on the water. I’ll put the coffee on, then I gotta go. Love you.”

“Love you, too,” she said, and Darin was not completely sure she was going to get up shortly, but, if she was a little late, he figured she had Doctor Dalrymple pretty much wrapped around her little tomboy fingers. She’d told Darin she loved animals almost as much as weed.

It was murky out. He tossed his zip-up bag, a relic of junior-varsity basketball, into the jon boat and shoved off. Thank goodness for the flashlight. He couldn’t make out anything ten yards in front of the boat. He’d told Teke he’d meet him in front of the house, about in the middle of the lake. The middle of the lake was an estimated guess, as it turned down, but he cut the motor and let the anchor down slowly. He was afraid just dropping that sucker might overturn the boat, and he had to make sure it would reach the bottom, which it did with ten or fifteen feet of light-gauge chain to spare.

Then Darin just sat, and he wondered if the fog was so bad that Teke couldn’t make it, and that’s when he realized that, like an idiot, he had left his iPhone charging, and he hoped if Teke was texting, and the chimes went off, that he was suitably general in case Ben just happened to hear the phone and took a look at the messages, which, he was confident, were going to be going off, one after another. Ellen was still there. She’d hear it. She’d know what to do.

Darin got bored, and so he did what he usually did when he got bored, which was to smoke a joint. It was just starting to get light. No one was out on the lake in this fog. Getting cut down by a power boat that couldn’t see him would be a hell of a way to die, and it seemed like a possibility once Darin got high enough to be paranoid. He felt like he was in Tales from the Crypt for a while, but then he saw Teke’s light flashing on and off, and he returned the fire, well, light, and he thought that it would be just like Teke to have taught himself Morse Code for just such an occasion. Darin had not, but he was glad to have some company out on that ghostly lake at five-thirty in the morning.

“Damn, nigga, I ‘bout got lost on a damn lake I spent half my life on,” Teke said. “So everything cool at the beach, huh?”

“Yeah, Sargent’s brother ain’t nothing like him. John – he goes by that, not Johnson — was surprised it wasn’t Sargent making the delivery.”

“Shit, we sent that muhfuh down there, we liable never to see that money. Sarge be done gone, or gambled it away somewhere, something …”

“Yeah, I believe old John knows his kid brother ‘bout as good as we do,” Darin said. He took the travel bag and handed it across to Teke, who handed him back another bag with another vacuum-packed pillow of marijuana, this one about half the size of the one Darin had delivered at the beach.

“You got time to talk?” Teke asked.

“Yeah. Want to, actually.”

“I pass you a blunt, but that might be right tricky, me and you in different boats.”

“That’s ah’ight. I been setting here twenty minutes. I was getting right paranoid, if you wanna know the truth.”

“I heard that,” Teke said, lighting a blunt.

“I got half a joint left,” Darin said. “I was just thinking, you know, we be selling a shitload, man. Seem like we need to worry about, you know, crowding somebody else.”

“Yeah, don’t worry ‘bout nothing, though. Leave that to me. We be pretty well connected right now, but that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, man. Way I see it, we just getting in on the ground floor. It ain’t gonna be illegal forever. We just learning the bidness for when that time comes. I be out of college. Hell, we probably both be.”

“Yeah, be for real, Teke. South Carolina gonna be about the last state to legalize weed. ‘Bout the best can be hoped for is, you know, reducing the penalties. What’s that word?” Darin lit his roach and took a hit. “Decriminalization. That’s about it, that or maybe that deal where they allow medicinal but only if it’s some shit where the THC has been, I don’t know, drained out of it, or, like, decaffeinated or some shit.”

Teke started laughing. “Yeah, uh, sir, give me a hit of that weed,” he said. “Decaf.

“All kidding aside, though,” he added, “I got to thinking about this when I was watching football highlights on one of them ESPN shows, you know, ‘Thirty on Thirty,’ t’other day. You know when South Carolina’s gonna legalize weed?”

“I just hope it’s ten minutes before hell freezes over instead of ten minutes after,” Darin said.

“I watched that thing about Southern Cal whipping Alabama’s ass back when Bama didn’t play no niggas. You seen that?”

“Yeah.”

“Bear Bryant used that as a means of getting them crackers to let some brothers play so’s they could compete with everybody.”

“So you don’t think Alabama can whip nobody without their ballplayers getting high?”

“Well, what I’m saying is this. You know, both teams in the Super Bowl was from states where the kush is legal,” Teke said. “Ah’ight, it’s legal in Washington and Colorado, and, come this fall, it probably get approved in Oregon. Ah’ight, and what happens when the Ducks win the national title, when it stop going to the SEC ever’ year? What happen when Washington, Washington State, Colorado, Colorado State, Gonzaga in basketball, what happens when all that happen?”

“All the fans up in them places get really, really happy?”

“Well, yeah, but word gets around, man. What you think happens if the coaches at Clemson, Carolina, start letting the word out to they friends in Columbia that it sure does seem like they losing a lot of studs to Oregon, and wonder what it is. Hmm. They ain’t gon’ need to say nothing else.”

Darin smiled. “That’s fucking nuts, man.”

“Aw, I’m kidding … ‘bout halfway. But, still, you never can tell … What I’m trying to say is, I ain’t planning to be no long-term criminal, mon. Ah’m breaking the law in the name of righteousness, and you is, too.”

“I better get back before my old man’s up and around,” Darin said. “It’s getting light.”

“Where your woman?”

“Ellen’s got to work. She probably striking out about now. I gotta go.”

“Ah’ight’en,” Teke said, and he yanked the string on the outboard motor and puttered away. Darin did the same and made his way back in the direction of what he was pretty sure was the right shore.

Darin cut the motor and glided in to the bank. When it bumped the bottom, he stepped out – he wasn’t wearing shoes – and pulled the jon boat on in. He had his back turned to the shore, dragging the boat, when he heard his father’s voice.

I expect you'd enjoy my first novel, as well.
I expect you’d enjoy my first novel, as well.

“Out early, ain’t you?” Ben had stepped out from behind the boathouse and was holding two rods in one hand and his tackle box in the other.

“Yeah,” Darin said. “You might want to fill her up with gas.”

“Come on back out with me.”

“Aw, Dad, I can’t. I got some things to do.”

“I insist,” Ben said.

“Well, get the gas can then,” Darin replied. He could tell from Ben’s eyes that he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Ben took the rudder and headed right back out from where Darin had come, which meant he wasn’t much interested in catching any fish, and Darin braced himself for a lecture. Ben was seeking the privacy of the middle of a near-empty lake. He didn’t say a word till he cut the motor and lowered the anchor in much the same manner as Darin before.

Darin was damn near stoned. He didn’t have any chewing gum, either. Fortunately, the boat needed to be balanced, and it was necessary to keep his distance. He could hold onto the sides. What he couldn’t hold was his train of thought.

The jig was up. It didn’t seem so bad. Darin thought of absurd scenarios, ways he would miraculously escape, even though he knew his father wasn’t nearly that dumb. Ben cut the motor and lowered the anchor, just as Darin had done, oh, a half hour or so earlier. Now the fog was lifting, but the sky was overcast, anyway. It might rain, but there wasn’t much in the clouds. A gentle breeze had started to waft about, and the water wasn’t still anymore. Ben fished a pack of Winstons from his pocket, which was odd because, by and large, he didn’t smoke. Darin was relieved because he wanted one, which was not unusual because he was somewhere along the border between high and stoned, and he knew a cigarette would tip him slightly across the edge.

Ben lit up and offered Darin one. He’d never smoked a Winston. It was sort of like a Marlboro Red, only a little harsher. Darin was accustomed to harsh.

“What’s in the bag, Darin?”

Darin studied his old man, looked at him, watery-eyed, and then it was like he shook himself out of a trance and reached down and unzipped the vinyl bag. He pulled out his bag of marijuana, his enormous pillow, and tossed it toward his father. Ben looked at it, lying there in the floor of the boat, between the two benches. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a Swiss army knife.

“What if I slashed this bag open and dumped it in the lake?” Ben asked.

Darin reached back into the bag and pulled out his black revolver, held it by the barrel, backwards, pointed at himself.

“Here,” Darin said. “If you’re gonna dump that shit out, you might as well shoot me. It’s gonna happen sooner or later.”

Ben took a deep breath, looked at the gun, and also took a long look at the weed.

“Here,” he said, “take your gun, and zip this weed back up in your bag. Somebody’s liable to come by. I’m damned if I’m gonna have somebody thinking I’m making a drug deal when I ain’t even doing it.”

Darin already felt goofy. He didn’t need to smile in this dramatic moment. It was hard. He didn’t have anything to say. He wanted to exhale but not inhale. Maybe this might not be so bad. He wished he’d known this was coming. Ellen would have come up with something. He couldn’t think. He was grateful for the cigarette. He wished he had his iPhone.

Ben finished the cigarette. He didn’t have anything to say, either. He had to think. He fiddled with one of the rods, cast it out on the water a few times, practicing. He line had no bait. Ben might as well have been drumming his fingers, or cracking his knuckles.

“All right,” he said, finally. “Just let me say my piece. We ain’t gonna argue. I get through, you’n say what you want, and I’ll listen, son. Deal?”

Darin nodded.

“Goddamn it, son, you know what saves the world?”

Darin wasn’t supposed to say anything, which Ben shortly remembered.

“What saves the world is that crooks are so stupid. You’re not stupid. Hell, we’ve established that in the past few days. I don’t think you got the most well-defined sense of right and wrong, but, hell, that don’t set you apart. The world is full of selfish assholes who don’t give a damn about nothing but theirselves. I’m trying not to be judgmental, Darin, and I don’t want to live your life for you, but if you want to screw people to the wall, hell, don’t be a bank robber. Be a fucking banker. That’s the reason there ain’t no future in crime. Anybody with any sense knows they ain’t no need to mess with it.

“Well, your turn. I reserve the right to rebuttal. I just want us to talk in a fairly civilized way. Let’s not yell at each other. Let’s just have a talk.”

“I don’t know that I got nothing you’re interested in hearing,” Darin said.

“Why don’t you try me?”

“Well, number one, Dad, I ain’t quite – I say quite – the lowlife it looks like. I need money, money to go to school, money to pay for gas, money to live in the dorm. Teke’s two years ahead of me in school. Dealing weed’s what keeps him in there. Honest to God, he’s studying business, and he’s using that knowledge. He says it’s important that you don’t deal with nobody you can’t trust. Me and him been friends dating back to when I was in the tenth grade, and he was a senior. He’s a smart dude, I swear, and he ain’t by no means evil. He don’t mess with nothing that’s terrible, and, we can disagree from now to next Friday, but pot ain’t that bad. Teke don’t do no other drugs, don’t cook no meth, don’t do no cocaine. It’s a joke marijuana even is illegal, and it ain’t gonna be forever.”

“Ah’ight, first thing,” Ben said. “Why come you ain’t got enough money to go to school.”

“I just ain’t. Mama ain’t got the money.”

“Well, when I pay your mama child support, I damn well expect my child to be supported.”

“Well, such as it is …”

“Shit, I reckon,” Ben said, and he started casting that line again, thinking if it was time to play the cards that might win.

“Now, you say, Darin, that this Teke’s a good boy, that he’s smart, that you can trust him, but what I’m guessing is y’all’s little circle of conspirators is getting bigger and bigger. What I’m guessing is you’re planning on doing a right good weed business at the University.”

“Well …” Darin remembered that his father thought he’d been to Columbia, not Myrtle Beach.

“You familiar with the term ‘quality control’?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You got any dealings with Judge Rudd’s son?”

Both of them, Darin thought. “Sargent? Yeah, I know him.”

“Well, he knows you. Night before last, this Sargent kid got himself arrested. He was in some kind of fight at the Lock, Stock, and Barrel next to the Fairlane Bridge. Country joint, I believe. He was dealing cocaine and pot, had a shitload of it on him when they busted him. Now, ‘cause he’s the magistrate’s son, they ain’t really wanting to send him to prison. They made a deal, and what he’s got to do is name names, and he’s done it. He named you and several others. My guess is that they’re planning to bust several others, namely, you, and Teke, and whoever else it is he knows about. Somebody’s gotta be a scapegoat if Sargent Rudd’s gonna get off with a wrist slap, or, maybe, nothing at all.”

“Where’d you hear that, Dad?”

“Believe it or not, I got a few friends, too, Darin. One of them that knows what he’s talking about paid me a little visit, said you better get out while the getting’s good.”

“Teke don’t know nothing about it,” Darin said. “I just seen him.”

“That’s the plan, Darin.”

“So what do I do?”

“Well, son, I wouldn’t go running around the projects with a backpack full of weed no time soon.”

Darin was a little too buzzed to cope with this shocking information. He thought about how, maybe, he could run this weed down to Myrtle Beach. John Rudd might take it off his hands. He knew his dad wasn’t lying on account of he was a lot of things, but one of them wasn’t a bullshitter.

“Ah’ight,” he said. “I appreciate it, Dad. Thanks. I’ll deal with it.”

“I’m just passing what I know along, Darin,” Ben said. “I know better than to trust you, but if you screw up, hell, I tried my best.”

“You ever smoke pot, Dad?”

“Yeah,” he said. “According to Maxeen Breslow, I smoked it right across the table in front of you and your gal Friday night. I don’t remember much about it, thanks to y’all, but I got my own problem dealing with that crazy woman. Based on what I’ve recently discovered, I’d say you can probably get rid of some of that weed to her any time now.”

Ben glanced at the travel bag. “I wouldn’t count on her buying all of it.”

“No, sir.”

“Don’t be a fool, son. Most people in this world ain’t stupid,” he said. “Most people just get out of the habit of thinking.”

###

If you enjoyed this story, I’m confident you’ll love my two novels, The Audacity of Dope and The Intangibles, about which you can learn at http://www.neverlandpublishing.com and http://www.montedutton.com.

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