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"Who's that sleeping in my bed?"
"Shh! You'll wake him." Ruby drags me away from the bedroom door, my bedroom door, where some strange man is sleeping in our bed. I have just enough time to see that he's also wearing my pajamas.
"Wake him? I should get my gun out and shoot him! How did he get in there? And what's that big black thing on the bed?"
Ruby keeps walking down the hall toward the kitchen of our 2000 Holiday Rambler Navigator. I follow her statuesque form, admiring the sway of her hips even as I work myself into a fine temper, as my Polish grandma used to call it. I mean, a man should have some inalienable rights. One of those should be not sharing his pajamas and his bed.
"He's a cat, Glad. His name is Malibu. Bill, his owner, was stranded out on the road. Mama and I picked them up. Bill was exhausted." Ruby pours a cup of coffee. "He needed a place to get himself together. He said he hadn't had a good night's sleep in days. What else could I do?"
Those big blue eyes turn on me, so wide and innocent. But I'm not backing down. There are some things that should be private. "When did you pick him up? Your dad and I were right behind you the whole time. I didn't see anyone hitchhiking."
"He was at the last rest stop. You were too busy flirting with that woman in the '57 Chevy.
Remember?" She smiles sweetly.
I vaguely remember the woman. The car was fantastic. It had everything. If I had time for something that sweet, it would be the car, not the woman. "I wasn't flirting with anyone. I can't even look at a car without you thinking I'm looking at another woman?" I put my arms around her waist and pull her close. "I don't need another woman, sweetie. You're all I want and all I can handle."
She pouts and I kiss her sexy lower lip. Then I shake my head. "But you aren't getting out of this that easy. You can't pick up some bum from a rest stop and put him in our bed. And you gave him my pajamas. Don't you think that was taking kindness to an extreme?"
"Well, he couldn't wear my pajamas! If you could've seen him, you'd know why I did it."
"If I'd seen him, I might have given him a few bucks, but not the key to my RV."
"Glad, the good book says to give no matter what the person seems to be like. Remember the parable about the lepers?"
"Not right now. But I don't think it says anything about putting a stranger in your bed after you give him your husband's pajamas."
"Let me call Mama." Ruby edges away from me. "She'll back my story. She thought it was the right thing to do."
"While we're at it, let's call Oprah and see what she thinks." I can't believe she doesn't see any harm in what she's done. "This is our bed and my pajamas. I don't care if the queen of England thinks it was the right thing to do."
"Fine." The word barely slips out of her pretty lips. "If that's the way you feel about it, I hope you're never alone, hurt, and exhausted and have no one to turn to."
"I hope not too. But I'm not real worried about that right now. I'm going to get that guy out of my bed. Maybe you could find some disinfectant and someplace we can burn my pajamas."
"Oh, you're so dramatic! Everything will be fine after we wash the pajamas. You'll see."
"And while we're at Wal-Mart getting new pajamas, we can pick up a mattress cover to put on the bed." I start back toward the bedroom.
She stops me. "I'll go. I created the problem, and I'll take care of it. I don't want Bill to be upset when I tell him my big oaf of a husband has no Christian charity."
"Tell him whatever you want to. Just get him out of here." She's not going to make me feel guilty about this. No telling who this guy is or where he's been. I have to sleep in that bed tonight, if we eventually make it through this line of RVs waiting to get into Dover International Speedway.
It's the Thursday morning before race weekend at the Monster Mile. Dover, the next race after Lowe's, isn't a bad drive from Charlotte, North Carolina normally. Ruby and I make this circuit every year. I might have skipped the race this year, since my driver, Joe Nemechek, isn't driving. I'm only a spectator, not a fan, when Front Row Joe isn't driving. When he's at a race, I'm out there with him. He may not win all the time, but he's one hell of a driver.
Now, Joe is a different story. I'd give him my pajamas, no problem.
Jimmie Johnson will be here, of course. He's good on this track, and he knows it. Ruby pulls for Jimmie, so she's happy anyway. I don't want to know how she would feel about sharing her bed and pajamas with him. Some things are better if you don't talk about them.
Ruby's parents decided to join us on this trip. Her father, Zeke, hasn't been to a race since he was confined to a wheelchair a couple of years ago, but he decided he wanted to see his son race at Dover. He can't drive his RV anymore, and Ruby's mom has never driven it. That's how we decided to split up.
If I'd known Ruby was going to take on passengers, I would've driven our RV and let her drive her parents' 1987 Coachman Shasta 280.
I don't have anything against Ruby's parents. They have their quirks, but I suppose they're like any other in-laws. Louise, Ruby's mom, has for some reason never called me by my name. She just calls me
"Ruby's husband." Ruby's father once chased me out of his yard with a shotgun. Seems he didn't care for the idea of his daughter marrying a Yankee.
Until I met the Furr family, I didn't realize people were still fighting the Civil War. Or, as they call it, the War of Northern Aggression. In Chicago, where I grew up, we were too busy fighting each other to remember anything that far back.
I pour myself a cup of coffee while I wait for Ruby to get the stranger out of our bedroom. I didn't think it would take this long. I think I could've had him out in about five seconds. But I was a cop for more years than I like to think about, and I might not be as dainty and delicate as Ruby.
There's a knock on the door, and Louise steps inside. "There you are. I brought these by for Bill. Where's Ruby?"
"Asking Bill to leave." I reach for the plate of brownies in her hand. "I'll take those. Thanks." She holds them back and glares at me. "I said they were for Bill. What do you mean, Ruby's asking him to leave? Where will he go?"
"I don't care."I really can't believe Ruby and Louise are so touched by this man. What did he do that was so appealing? And thinking about the two women finding him so attractive makes me wonder what's going on back there in the bedroom with him and Ruby.
"All you people are the same." Louise says "you people," but she means Yankees. "This poor man needs our help. The good book says we have to give."
"Hold that thought." She's still got the brownies in her hand. They smell really good. Once we take care of Bill, maybe I can sweet-talk a few from her.
I'm normally not worried about Ruby being with another man. She's loyal down to her Royal Carnation Pink toenails. It's the men I worry about. My Ruby is a very desirable woman. In this case, though, I'm starting to worry that Bill might've hypnotized Louise and Ruby when he met them at the rest area. Nothing else makes sense. Okay, I don't believe it was really hypnosis, but I do know there are drugs that can cause this kind of behavior.
Louise is glaring hard at my back as I walk to the bedroom, but I figure I can take her staring. It's when she follows me that I start getting nervous.
The bedroom door is closed. My heart starts beating fast. I trust Ruby. She's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I know she wouldn't do anything to hurt me–at least not on purpose.
But my last marriage ended when I found my first wife in our bed with her aerobics instructor, which pretty much signaled that our relationship was over. Standing here, wondering what I might find going on in my bed this time, is chipping a few years off what life I have left to live. I don't know if I can take finding Ruby in bed with Bill.
Fortunately, my pistol is still in the glove compartment of our Ford Ranger, which is still attached to the back of the RV. I wouldn't trust myself to have it in my hands at this moment. All the training in the world can't prepare you for something like this.
"Well? Why are you still standing there?" Louise demands from behind me. "Open the door."
She's right. I know she's right. But I can't bring myself to open the door. Every man has his limitations. This is mine.
I step to one side. "You open it."
Louise rolls her eyes and briskly steps forward."You are one weird boy. What's wrong with you anyway?"
I don't answer. I can't answer. I can still see my ex-wife the day I came home early from work. It's not a thing a man forgets. Trust me. And her aerobics instructor wasn't even wearing my pajamas. He wasn't wearing any pajamas.
I take a deep breath, and Louise opens the bedroom door. She peers inside and catches her breath. I'm too far on the right to see whatever she sees in the room. Short of pushing her out of the way, I'm stuck with her interpretation. "What? What's going on?"
"Oh, Ruby!" Louise shakes her head. "What are you doing?" That's it. I slam the door open all the way with my forearm and step into the room. There are no lights on, and the blinds are drawn on the door and window. The shadows merge on the bed, becom-ing
Ruby's form and the large black cat I saw before.
"Isn't he adorable?" Ruby asks her mother. "He's so friendly too. Aren't you just so friendly?" She talks gibberish to the cat. "And you're so soft and fluffy."
I glance around the room, my old cop senses taking control of my brain. I don't see Bill anywhere. I check the bathroom, but he's not there. I check the closet, but he's not there either. This is a nice RV, but you can only hide in so many places. "Where's Bill?"
"He was gone when I got back here," Ruby explains. "He probably heard you talking about him and left."
"I hope you're satisfied," Louise says. She shakes her head and reaches down to pet the cat. "He's a beautiful animal. Didn't Bill leave a note or something about coming back for him?"
"I didn't see anything. All I could find were his ragged old clothes and Glad's pajamas that I gave him."
"Then what's he wearing?" I notice the bottom drawer of my dresser is open.
"Oh, he took those old jeans you should've given to Goodwill last year and that old Talladega T-shirt. And those nasty moccasins you've been wearing since before I met you."
"In other words, your helpless stray stole my clothes. Did you check to see if he took anything else?" I take out my cell phone. "I'm calling the police."
"You put that thing away, Ruby's husband," Louise chimes in. "I'm sure you have plenty you can share with that poor man. You didn't see him. Someone had beaten him. He was lucky to escape with his life."
Ruby stares at me too, and I put the cell phone away. "I think both of you have lost your minds." I say this in the kindest way I can. "Let's at least put the cat outside."
Both women yell"No!"at the same time. Louise drops the brownies on the bed as she rushes to her daughter's side to protect the cat. Ruby clutches the animal to her ample bosom–a place usually reserved for me.
"Come on," I say. "You can't be serious. What are we gonna do with a cat?" Louise and Ruby glare at me while the big black monster creeps away from Ruby and starts licking the brownies. So much for me eating them.
"I'm sure Bill will be back for him," Ruby assures me as she and Louise laugh at the animal's mischief. The cooing and baby talk that follows (directed at the cat) is almost enough to put me off of ever eating again.
"I'm sure Bill has already forgotten his furry friend." I reach for the cat.
The animal looks up at me and hisses. Large white fangs protrude from his pink mouth as half-inch-long claws show in the front paw he uses to scratch my hand.
"No wonder he left it here." I pull my mutilated hand back and look at the damage. "That cat better have a rabies shot. Good thing I had that tetanus booster last year."
"Calm down, Glad." Ruby gets off the bed and hands me a tissue. "He's wearing a collar with his name and his shot record on it."
"I hope it has an address on it too, because it can't live here."
Before I can acknowledge that my ultimatum will be largely ignored, RV horns start blowing. It means traffic is finally moving. I have to get back up to the Furrs' RV. For good measure, I add, "I'd like that thing to be gone when I get back."
Ruby and Louise glare at me, and the cat snarls. Not a great beginning for race weekend.
I slam the door on my way out and stalk up to Ruby's parents' RV. Zeke is waiting for me at the door. "Where the hell have you been, Glad? I thought I was going to have to get out and push this thing. What's going on that couldn't wait?"
I don't know where to start, but it all tumbles out as I pull the RV forward. Soon I'm actually close enough to see our parking spaces, and I pull the Coachman into one of them. It will be another hour before it's all set up, but that's another story.
Zeke agrees with me. "A man shouldn't have to share his bed with a stranger," he says. "Unless she's a pretty little honey."
I appreciate Zeke's support. At least someone besides me isn't crazy. But I don't want to think about Zeke being in bed with Louise, much less a pretty little honey. "Thanks. Louise and Ruby are nuts about this guy. I don't know what happened. But I'm sure not keeping that cat."
"Damn straight! A man has to be king in his castle."
It's kind of scary to be on Zeke's side. If it wasn't for the scratches on my hand, I'd seriously rethink my position. "I'm gonna start setting up. You want me to take you outside?"
"I can get outside by myself, thank you," Zeke says, turning on me faster than a pit crew can change a tire. "You get things set up. I'll take care of myself."
At least Zeke and I agree on some things sometimes. I'm never sure what Louise is thinking.
By this time, Ruby has pulled our RV into the space beside us. I decide to work at getting back on her good side before I set up anything. Ruby is one of those people with a long memory. I could find myself sleeping in one of the Furrs' captain's chairs tonight if I'm not careful.
Outside is chaos. Everyone is moving at the same time. Late-arriving drivers are getting their cars in place for practice runs, and fans are getting RVs set up while they yell at friends across the parking lot. A hundred different vendors are setting up their striped tents.
Dover is a tighter track than Lowe's, with more restrictions. No tents or open fires for campers. I guess they're more worried about the fun getting out of control. And it's true that a hundred thou-sand or so people can get out of hand. I respect that, but at the same time I miss the freedom and the tent campers. They can be a rowdy, fun group.
Ruby steps out of the Navigator with Louise right behind her. Louise gives me an evil look and then goes inside her RV.
I ignore her and go over to Ruby."Let's not stay angry over this." I come up from behind and put my arms around her. "I love you. I know you did what you thought was right."
"Even if it wasn't?"
At last she's beginning to see the light. I guess the evil spell, or drugs–whatever it was that Bill and his cat did to her–is over. "That's right. We all do wrong things for good reasons. I don't hold it against you, sweetie."
"Thank you, honey. You're such a wonderful husband. So kind and forgiving." She smiles at me, and I fall for it.
"That's okay. As long as we're on the right track."
"We're on the right track." She moves away from me with a snap. "Unfortunately, we're at different tracks. Your track is sleeping in the truck tonight while Malibu and I share our filthy, disgusting bed that probably saved a man's life."
"Excuse me." She brushes by me. "I'm going to level the RV."
"Fine. I'll unhitch the truck and get your parents' RV set up."
She's mad, and there's nothing I can do about it right now. I'm not sleeping in the truck, but it won't be a good night anyway.
"Hey! My two biggest fans!" Ruby's brother, Bobby, speeds up in his hooked-up 1966 Mustang with his friend, another rookie driver, John Paxton. "You made it. Where's Mama and Daddy? I hope you had a good trip."
"Hi, Glad! Hi, Ruby!" John shakes my hand as Ruby squeals and runs over to hug him. She adopted him after meeting him at Lowe's. He's another one of her sob stories. Something about dead parents and barely being able to keep his race car going. He doesn't have a big team like Roush sponsoring him, and that can be a problem.
I admire Bobby's ride for a minute (who wouldn't?), and then I retreat to unhitch the truck. Let Ruby explain what happened. I've got my money on Bobby backing me and Zeke. He wouldn't want Bill in his pajamas either.
At that moment, we hear the first scream. Information runs like dust off a track through the spectator crowd. There is no grapevine here. It's more like instant messaging.
"Someone's dead on the track!" a man in a golf cart yells as he drives by.
"Someone fell off the DuPont bridge," a woman shouts from the cab of a Chevy Silverado.
I look back at Ruby, and she's already in the car with Bobby and John. I run and jump in the back seat next to her. The tires squeal as Bobby pulls in front of oncoming traffic to head up to the track.
The multistory grandstands loom over the campground, with the Dover Hotel and Casino rising to the left of it. Traffic is still fierce, drivers clogging the main road into the track. Bobby takes a look at the scene and shakes his head. "We'll never get in this way, even with my pass."
"Let's park here and go through the side gate." Ruby points toward the open gate.
People are rushing toward the grandstands. Already, security is beefing up its presence, trying to keep everyone out. We have only a few seconds to get in before they have it locked down. Bobby pulls the Mustang right up to the gate, and we jump out. I realize this is all impulse and slow my gait. What the hell are you doing? I've seen enough bodies to last me a lifetime. I don't need to see another one.
"Come on, Glad," Ruby urges, already at the gate."We'll miss it."
"It's a dead body, sweetie. I'll sit this one out. You can tell me about it later."
"Never mind him, Ruby." Bobby holds the gate open. "Let's get down there."
I realize when I see their two blond heads disappear around the corner, with John right beside them, why I was going. Remember what happened in Charlotte? my stupid voice of guilt and anxiety asks. Remember the mess Bobby and Ruby were both in that time? That's why you need to go. "Hold up!" I yell. "Wait for me!"
They don't wait, of course. But years of chasing suspects through the back alleys of Chicago don't fail me, and I catch up with the three of them. There's some wheezing and heart pounding going on that wasn't there when I was twenty-five, but for a forty-two-year-old ex-cop, I'm not in bad shape. People are filling the grandstands, rushing up to the fence that borders the track. The DuPont Monster Bridge, which crosses one side of the track, is empty, waiting for the movers and shakers with invitations who will sit behind its glass walls during the race.
Underneath it is a body. From the angle of the legs and arms, I can tell he's in bad shape. His face is turned upward, his open eyes staring at the blue sky beyond the bridge. I estimate the fall at about thirty feet. The chances are the crowd is right and the man is dead.
Ruby and Bobby stare at the scene until Ruby gets a strange look on her face. She steps away from her brother and puts her hand on mine. "Glad, do you recognize that shirt?"