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January 1986, Bass Creek, Florida
Lucy liked to fish in the daylight. She enjoyed seeing her prey, but it was even more important that they see her. Focus their eyes on the feast while she set the hook ever so gently. She hooked Rudy the first time she walked into his store in her dungaree short-shorts and tight tank top.
"Hypnotize 'em and hook 'em," she would have told her class if she had taught the sport. Rudy could have been exhibit number one. He couldn't keep his eyes off her and he couldn't hide it either. Luckily there was only one other customer in the store, an old man Rudy rang up without so much as a glance. Lucy could tell she had him without even looking.
"Weight on the line. That's how you do it, ladies. It's all feel. And be patient. Don't yank too quickly or he'll get away. Let him run a little till he's out of breath. Then you've got him. Catch him firstyou can always throw him back."
Rudy could have done some fishing of his own if he'd known how. Unlike Lucy, who packed it all into a small, tight body, Rudy was tall, the olive skin of his chiseled face punctuated with fierce brown eyes and framed by thick, coal black hair that shone like silkhair that women dreamed about for themselves. Lucy wasn't the first woman who had tried to hook young Rudy. They came in every night to the convenience store where he worked, every shape and size and age, but Rudy had been oblivious until now.
Lucy did that to the men from the barrios wherever she went. This one was on the outskirts of Bass Creek, a small town in the central portion of Florida just north of Lake Okeechobee. It was populated by Mexicans, Colombians, Indians, Puerto Ricansmostly pickers, mostly seasonal. They lived in single-wides or housing provided by the growerscinder block shacks with running water.
But Rudy didn't live in the barrio, he wasn't seasonal and he wasn't a picker. He had come to Bass Creek with his mother, Elena Kelly, when he was a boy. They had lived in a run-down motel for a while until Elena got a job as a maid at the Bass Creek Hotel, the largest hotel in town, located just under the new bridge over the Okalatchee River.
Everybody liked the idea of the new bridge when word got around that they were going to build it. The old drawbridge was ugly, slow and cumbersome and it caused backups every fifteen minutes as it raised and lowered for the steady flow of river traffic. The new bridge would be modern and sleek and high enough so even the largest sailboats could cruise by unimpeded. The new bridge was supposed to provide local jobs and money. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Outside contractors were hired for the construction and brought their own people. Those workers stayed during the week and filled up the hotels but they were a vile lot, drinking and fighting and abusing the town. Elena, who was probably the prettiest woman in Bass Creek, had to stay hidden behind a locked door after dark. Rudy saw the change in her but never really understood it.
When the bridge was finally completed, the workers left and the cars flew by in one continuous stream. No need to stop anymore to let the highway of sailboats pass. No need to pull into this little town to browse, or eat, or perhaps spend the night. Bass Creek had been a rest stop on a friendly stream for tourists on their way to Miami or Fort Lauderdale. The old bridge had been the comma that caused those tourists to pause. Now the pause was gone, and the folks of Bass Creek who didn't own orange groves, who survived in the service industries, took the brunt of the loss.
Sure, they still had the fishermen, but the fishing on Lake Okeechobee was a far cry from what it had been fifteen, twenty years ago. Overfishing and pollution had taken their toll on the old lake. Elena had worked hard those first few years before the new bridge and she'd made good money. And Bass Creek had been a good town to live in. Now it had lost its vitality. Stores on Main Street had been forced to close. McDonald's and Burger King had built out by the highway and lured back some, but few of them were trickling into town.
The Bass Creek Hotel stood a full three stories high, the largest building in town. Before the new bridge was built, its coat of bright yellow paint had shone like the sun itself in the afternoon light. Part of Elena's compensation had been a room to live in and meals in the hotel dining room for her and young Rudy. After she had inherited the manager's position when the old manager deserted the place, Elena took over the large apartment in the back, which had two bedrooms and a full kitchen, and both she and Rudy had loved it. But now the hotel lay hidden from the sun, separated from the rest of the town, a gloomy, desolate place.
"How much is this?" Lucy was leaning on the counter holding a liter of Diet Coke with the price tag clearly visible. Rudy tried to concentrate on her bright white teeth, which were wrestling with a wad of gum, but in her low-cut, body-tight top, Lucy was providing him with a glimpse of something much more exotic. He couldn't help but steal a glance. The store was now empty.
"How much?" Lucy broke the spell momentarily.
"Oh. Sorry. Ninety-nine cents. It's on special."
"You're sure? You're not just giving me a special deal, are you?" Lucy leaned all the way over, and Rudy could see the full contour of her breasts. He was thankful the counter shielded him from the waist down, but Lucy knew anyway. The hook was in.
"No. No. That's the price," he answered, his voice cracking.
"Well, I don't believe you." She crossed her arms tight against her breasts as she leaned. Rudy thought they were going to pop out right there on the counter. His mouth hung open in anticipation. "I don't take a favor without returning one," Lucy continued. "You come to my trailer tonight. Forty-four Mercer Street. It don't matter what time, I'll be there." Rudy just nodded. He was too far gone to speak.
As soon as she left he grabbed a pencil and wrote down the address. Rudy was handsome and his smile could light up a room, but he was slow. "Not retarded, just slow," the doctor had told Elena when she took him to be tested at age four when he hadn't spoken one word. There was some technical jargon about a lack of oxygen when he was coming down the birth canal but Elena had been too shell-shocked to take in the details. Eventually, she had learned to cope and taught young Rudy to do the same. Writing things down right away was one of his methods. Staying out of dangerous situations was another. Something inside him warned that Lucy was danger but the urgings from another part of his body were all that Rudy heard.
He closed up at eleven and practically ran over to Mercer Street. There were no street lamps and at first he couldn't find Forty-four but then he saw it, set back from the street in the darker shadows.
As he stood outside her door and got ready to knock, Rudy was as excited as a kid on his first date, which wasn't too far off. Sure, he'd been out with girls during high school, but there hadn't been many. He knew why, too. He'd heard the all-too-loud whispers behind his back. Nobody really messed with him because he'd quieted the first couple of kids who called him "Dumbo" or "Dunce" or "Shithead" to his face, but the whispers had never stopped. In fact, Rudy had never even made it to the proverbial second base. It was a part of his life that he tried not to think about, that he kept sealed behind a locked door, a lock that Lucy had picked in a matter of seconds.
She was waiting for him but she didn't answer right away. "Let the anticipation build," she would have told her class. Lucy had a doctorate in the subject of men, or so she thought.
She'd put on her ruby red lipstick. She always saved it for nights like this. Rudy hardly noticed. When she opened the door, all he saw was a sheer white teddy barely concealing those wondrous breasts he hadn't stopped thinking about since she'd first teased him with them in the convenience store. He steadied himself from shaking. Lucy moved closer so he could catch the scent of her perfume.
"Are those for me?" she asked surprised, as she looked down at the bouquet of cheap flowers Rudy had grabbed off the counter as he charged out of the store. For just a moment she was touched: Not too many men brought her flowers. Rudy was so enraptured he'd forgotten he was even holding them.
"Oh, these? Yeah, I brought them for you."
"Why, thank you!" Lucy took his hand, led him through to the living room and sat him down on the couch. "Now you relax. I'll put these in some water and I'll be right back."
She threw the flowers on the counter in the kitchen and was back in an instant, carrying two frosty mugs. She was eager to land this fresh young catch and alcohol always helped.
"I only have beer," she lied as she handed him the mug. A red flag went up in Rudy's head. Alcohol was another one of those dangers his mother had warned him about. But somehow he couldn't say no, couldn't bring himself to disrupt the mood. He took the beer and gulped down a quick mouthful.
Lucy slithered up next to him and tucked her feet underneath her. Rudy was afraid to look down, afraid to discover if she was really wearing panties. They sat there like that making small talk for a half hour or so, Rudy sipping nervously at his beer and Lucy becoming increasingly impatient. Finally, she took his mug and headed to the kitchen for a refill.
She had no formal education but Lucy was wise in the ways of the world. His first few words had told her he was just a boy in a man's body, and she had pretty much decided she was going to call it a night. But she couldn't stop thinking about the excitement in his eyes. She hadn't seen that kind of anticipation in a long time. Maybe it will be fun, she thought. And he is so beautiful. . . . She poured a shot of Jack Daniel's into his second beer.
The Jack Daniel's did it. Rudy began to relax, touching her face gently with the palm of his hand, massaging her neck, all the while responding to her passionate kisses. He moved his hand slowly to the edge of her teddy, and then, at last, he was caressing those warm, perfect breasts. Waves of delirious pleasure washed over him, and he could feel the blood rushing from his head.
Suddenly it was all too much. He was dizzy, his head was reeling and his stomach was churning. He knew he was about to be sick. He made a mad dash for the front door and the outside air but his knee hit the coffee table as he started to rise, tipping his beer mug over. Already off balance, he tried to grab the mug and caught it just as he hit the floor, smashing it to pieces. The mood was permanently and irrevocably broken.
"I'm sorry," he spluttered as he gazed at his hand, which was bleeding profusely from a nasty gash and dripping blood onto the carpet. "I'll clean everything up." He still felt sick but the accident had erased the sudden urge to puke, at least momentarily. Lucy stared at the broken glass and the blood on the carpet. She stifled the urge to scream.
"That's okay, I'll get it. But I think you should go now." Without waiting for a reply she helped him up and ushered him to the front door, grabbing some paper towels on the way and stuffing them into his still-bleeding hand. "I'll call you," she told him as she not-so-politely pushed him out and closed the door behind him.
Rudy staggered down the street a few doors until he could no longer hold it, then puked on a patch of grass that masqueraded as the front lawn of Carlos and Pilar Rodriguez.
Farther south on Mercer Street, Geronimo Cruz was drinking beer with two of his "friends," Raymond Castro and José Guerrero. Geronimo was from Texas, and he always carried a knife. Ray and José hung around with him only because Geronimo had chosen them and they were afraid to turn down the invitation.
Ray and José had been sitting on the stoop of Ray's apartment one night about a month before when Geronimo showed up.
"Got an extra cerveza?" he inquired.
"Sure," Ray responded. That was all it took. They couldn't get rid of him after that. Every night he stopped by, and every night he was empty-handed. He told them about men he had stabbed, women he had raped, always brandishing his knife with the serrated edge. Both men wished they had never met him.
They knew he was seeing Lucy because he bragged about her. Two or three nights a week, they watched him stroll over towards her trailer after a few beers. They knew Lucy, knew of her affinity for men like Geronimo. They figured she could handle herself.
They were on their third beer the night Rudy came stumbling down the street and started puking on the Rodriguez lawn. Geronimo's eyes narrowed.
"Who the fuck is that?"
"I don't know," Ray responded. "I saw him go in Lucy's just before you showed up." The words came out without thinking. Ray wanted to slap himself when he realized what he had done. Geronimo immediately put down his beer and drifted into the shadows, walking towards Lucy's trailer.
Copyright © 2005 by James Sheehan. All rights reserved.