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The old man shuff led out the back door of his small clapboard house and leaned heavily on the wood railing as he negotiated the two back steps. He was dressed in clean, striped overalls, a white shirt and a wide-brimmed straw hat. In his left hand, the hand not clutching the rail, he carried a small bouquet of f lowers he'd cut that morning, mostly zinnias, with a few canna lilies and two long brightly colored gladiolas.
Beneath the shade of his hat brim was the face of a man marked by time. The lines bore witness to laughter and sadness, hard work and good humor.
He walked the well-worn path toward the shed. He was tall and straight, though his gait was unsteady these days. He was too proud to carry a cane, but he kept a long stick, formerly a rake handle, at the back door of the house. He leaned on it regularly as he did his chores around the yard, but today he spurned it completely.
He checked the padlock on the door to the shed. It was secure enough to keep out the honest people and the most stupid of criminals. The door hinges were on the outside and anyone with half a brain could get the door off in two minutes. To his thinking, if you were going to be robbed, it was better to lose your property to somebody who might have enough sense to make something with it.
On the side of the shed was a lean-to carport. Parked beneath its shelter was the green Oldsmobile that belonged to his wife, Geraldine. He started it up every Saturday and kept it in running condition. But it hadn't been driven anywhere in three years. His own vehicle, a 1968 Ford pickup, was left out in the weather. He didn't figure sun or rain could damage it much. Its color was now an indecipherable mix of aging primer and encroaching rust.
The metal door groaned loudly as he opened it up. He leaned in and laid the f lowers gently on the far side of the seat. With one hand on the door and the other on the steering wheel he hoisted himself inside.
The key was in the ignition. He left it there so he'd know where to find it. He joked to his friends that he hoped somebody would make off with the old clunker in the night. No one ever did. The truth was, a classic car collector had offered him good money to buy it, and he'd been torn. Frugal all his life, it was tough for him to spurn cash money for what amounted to little more than a pile of junk, but he just couldn't part with the old truck. It had seen too much of his life.
He pumped the gas pedal a few times, hesitated a few seconds and then turned the key. The rusty old truck sprang to life immediately. The man smiled. He waited a couple of minutes, ostensibly to let it warm up, but just as much for the pleasure of hearing it run. Finally he stepped on the clutch, shifted into Reverse and turned the truck around so that he wouldn't have to back out the long narrow drive.
Where his gravel driveway met up with the pothole-pocked blacktop, he went to the right, of course. There was nothing to the left but cow pastures and a few lazy oil wells. He lived in the last house on Bee Street, and for the most part, he always had.
The sun glinted in his rearview mirror as he headed west. He braked at the stop sign on the highway and while looking right and left, he gazed fondly at the old nightclub where he used to dance. These days it was church, but he'd always think of the place as Jitterbug Lounge.
With no traffic coming in either direction, he crossed the pavement and continued the blacktop climb. It was a solitary drive punctuated with occasional nodding or waving at neighbors he passed. His eyesight wasn't what it once was, but he knew this road by heart. He'd pulled a little red wagon along this way, delivering milk for two cents a quart. And he'd f lown down it on his bicycle on the way home from school. He'd walked it to the bus station when he'd left for boot camp. And driven his wife and newborn son home from the hospital. He knew this road. And he knew what lay at the end of it.
Bee Street wandered through town along the near edge of Versy Creek, around by the ball field and the Pentecost church, to the edge of the business district, crossing Main Street at the fire house. Then it got straighter as it climbed higher. The houses were nicer now, newer, but that was a relative term, as well. Nothing had been new in this town since the 1980s.
At the very crest of the hill Bee Street ended abruptly. If he turned right he could connect up with a half dozen town streets. He turned left and drove across a cattle guard into Hilltop Cemetery.
His parents were buried here, by the huge oak in the southeast section. Geraldine's folks, too, nearer the back road. His best friend from high school, Les Andeel, was in the Gold Star sector, where free plots were given to WWII boys killed in action.
He didn't even think about any of those graves this morning. He headed to one more recent and more dear. He brought the truck to a stop in the far north corner of the graveyard. The door creaked open and he eased himself onto the ground. He retrieved his f lowers and walked the length of the pickup, casually steadying himself with one hand. Then he stepped off into the grass, angling unerringly in exactly the right direction. He saw his son's headstone first. As he passed he patted the top of the granite lovingly as he once had the head of the boy long gone. Beyond that was a newer grave. The stone was set, but the grass had not completely filled in the area below it.
"Good morning, Crazy Girl," the man said aloud. He didn't even glance around to make sure he wasn't overheard; he was beyond caring what anybody might think. "It's your birthday, today," he said. "Or it would be if you were still here." He chuckled lightly as if it were a joke. "I brought you some f lowers from the garden. I've been taking care of it the best I can, though it's not nearly as nice as when you tended to it."
He squatted down and laid out the f lowers, fussing with them more than necessary. He missed her more than he was willing to admit. And it wasn't just her cheerful voice around the house or the companionship of a life shared together. He realized, now that it was too late to tell her, how much he'd leaned on her all those years. Those years when he'd thought she'd been leaning on him.
"I saw that old red bird in the persimmon tree," he said.
"I don't know what happened to his mate. I never see her around anymore. But there are some wrens that have made a place for themselves up in the porch eaves. They've still got eggs in the nest. I see the two taking turns with them. I guess we'll be having some little peepers in just a few days."
A gust of wind tugged at his hat. He grabbed for it, almost losing his balance. He caught himself on one knee. He was a little embarrassed, still unaccustomed to the clumsiness of his old age. Then, surprisingly, a smile slid across his face giving a f leeting glimpse of the younger, livelier man he used to be.
"Well now, Geri, you've finally brung me to my knees, haven't you?"
He chuckled aloud and shook his head. Then he lingered in that position for a long moment before reaching out to touch the letters of her name etched in granite.
"I miss you, Crazy Girl," he said. "I miss you every day."
With a sigh of resignation he braced himself on the edge of the tombstone and rose to his feet. The instant he was standing straight, he heard it. As clearly and closely as if he were in a ballroom instead of a cemetery, he could hear the music of Les Brown and his Band of Renown backing Doris Day as she sang "Sentimental Journey." He glanced around. It had to be a radio. He saw nothing and no one, but the sound was close enough that it seemed all around him. He felt a momentary light-headedness. Then the ground was coming up at him.
Jack Crabtree stood in the chaos and dust of a new home building site, looking typically relaxed and low-key. Those around him might have been melting in the heat and humidity of a hot south Texas summer, but he was cool. Wearing the clothes he considered his work uniform, khaki shorts and a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt, he was tall, dark-haired, tan and smiling, always smiling. That was part of his uniform, as well. Or maybe it was his product? He was selling good looks, fit lifestyle, social confidence and aff luence. And it was all packaged together in the most eclectic and expensive custom-built swimming pools in San Antonio.
"Oh, I love it up here!" Jack's assistant, Dana, gushed. "It's like I can see forever."
Dana wasn't pure eye candy, but she certainly could behave that way if the situation called for it. The house's owner, Big Bob Butterman, was certainly a client for whom she would pull out all the stops.
"The view is good," Jack agreed, his words evenly factual.
"It is damn good!" Butterman insisted. "Worth every penny."
Jack nodded as the two of them stared off into the distance once more.
The site was high, on the edge of the hill country with the city skyline in the distance. The house itself was a mish-mash of architectural types, old-world Mediterranean meets California contemporary, palatial in scale and boasting all the latest features available in the current real-estate market. It was designed for entertaining and was exactly the canvas for one of Jack's esoteric layouts.
In the back of his mind, Jack was already planning the project. He would use the natural curve of the land for shape. And Plexiclear for the bench around the hot tub. The infinity-edge pool would lead the eye outward as if going straight off the end of the world. It would be phenomenal and every person who saw it would ask about it. They'd ask who built it.
The prospect made his mouth water, but he never let it show.
"With a view like this," he told Butterman, "you could buy a pool from Wal-Mart and your guests would still be impressed."
"Hell, son, my guests will be impressed just by getting an invitation," the man said with a deep, hearty laugh over his own joke. "The person you need to worry about impressing is me."
Big Bob was exactly what his name suggested. Surprisingly tall, and broad as he was high, he'd made a name for himself in the 1960s playing football for Georgia Tech. For the past thirty years he'd been franchising appliance stores with the slogan Big Bob's Best Deals!
He talked like he was a regular guy, proud of his humble origins and immune to social climbing. But Jack was pretty sure that a man didn't wear five-thousand-dollar Italian suits, ostrich boots and diamond rings on every fat finger because he didn't mind being mistaken for poor.
The vibrate feature on Jack's phone distracted him. The office knew to hold all calls unless there was an emergency. His first thought was his kids, but he ignored the phone nonetheless. A half minute later, the call kicked over to Dana's cell, as he knew it would. She glanced down at it and, with a smile of apology, excused herself.
"I can give this area the poolscape it deserves," Jack told Big Bob. "I'll put a series of waterfall features on this side, to block the sight of that house on the top of the hill across from you."
He saw Butterman glance in the direction he indicated, suddenly concerned and annoyed with neighbors he'd never noticed before.
"I'll curve it around the landscaping to give it a natural brook appeal," Jack continued. "And the infinity edge will make it a f lat surface that just f lows off the end of yard. Aesthetically, it will have all the wow factor you can imagine, and functionally it will be absolutely top-notch."
Big Bob was nodding.
"But you'd better call down to your stores and tell them to put those refrigerators and f lat screens in a deep discount," Jack warned. "To do this right, and that's the only way I'll do it, it's going to scorch the seams on your wallet."
Butterman hesitated only a minute and then emitted a giant guffaw. "Gottdamnit! I like your style, son," he said. "I do like your style."
Jack smiled, maintaining his laid-back demeanor while mentally pumping his fist in the air in triumph.
Dana returned and continued to ooh and aah about the location as Jack carefully explained the technical engineering details. Men liked to know the details. They always wanted to know how the plumbing worked even if they never intended to look at it.
Butterman asked a few simple questions. But the final one caught Jack off guard.
"Now, you're some shirttail relative of Dr. Van Brugge, right?"
If the man could have said anything likely to make Jack uncomfortable, that was it. Ernst Van Brugge was the most renowned cardiac surgeon in the city. Brilliant, wealthy, successful. He was a beloved physician, socially prominent and a generous philanthropist.
"He's my stepfather," Jack answered.
"Really! Well, I knew there was some connection," Butterman said. "I had no idea it was that close. I thought all his boys were in practice with him?"
"My half brothers," Jack said. "I leave the heart surgery to them. They leave the swimming pools to me."
Butterman chuckled, but Jack was only faking humor.
"Well, your stepdad sure did a great job on my old ticker, I'll tell you that," he said. "In my book, he's a gentleman and a scholar. And I'm more than happy to throw a little business in his stepson's direction."
Jack continued to nod and smile, though the taste in his mouth had turned surprisingly bitter.
It took another hour to completely firm up the deal and sign contract intent. Dana took care of a lot of that, but today the phone kept ringing. He got several more buzzes that forwarded over to Dana's phone. Each time she checked the caller ID, she gave Jack a reassuring glance and then allowed the calls to go to voice messaging.
By the time they were ready to leave, Jack had managed to regain his enthusiasm for the project. Maybe a lot of people thought he owed his success to his stepfather. Maybe Ernst did occasionally steer clients to him. But Swim Infinity was Jack's business. The capital had been his own, the ideas were his own and the blood, sweat and tears that had been invested in the last decade were his own, as well.
So when Butterman finalized his handshake with a slap on the back and an admonition to, "remember me to the doctor," Jack hardly had to fake his goodwill at all.