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Rebecca Somewhere Out in the Wild Black Yonder
AUGUST 1999 It is way beyond midnight, an oven-hot August evening, and I am drifting along a strand of Louisiana asphalt that I can't quite locate on any map. The wisp of a road bounces across an alligator-infested swamp, and the air is thick with the stench of stagnant water. Fluttering before the windshield like poison jewels and disappearing into the bayou are glowing, snapping insects. Several miles behind me was the last vestige of civilization-a weathered gothic church with a sign saying: FREE TRIP TO HEAVEN-DETAILS INSIDE.
The skyscape around me, though, is cloaked in summer finery: The Big Dipper's silver stars twinkle above the oak trees. A huge Japanese lantern of a moon illuminates the night. And there's the Milky Way, trailing across the sky in misty, billowy tufts like miles and miles of bridal veil.
An ordinary motorist would admit they were lost, or at the very least, misplaced or off-kilter. Lila Mae, my wayfaring mother and a utopian traveler, would simply call the situation "the scenic route". It is true that I don't know where I am at the moment. It is even, as an old song put it, a little worse than that: "I don't know where I've come from, cause I don't know where I've been. Or so the lyrics go."
If the accounts I've heard from gas station attendants and tollbooth operators are to be believed, it is not an opportune time to be drifting. Percolating somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico is a hurricane, one that's threatening to sweep ashore. Because of this, my nerves are drawn tight as the strings of a Stradivarius. But, there is magic in the night, and I am infused with excitement, as if the wings of some exotic bird were flapping inside me.
Sprinkled like melting snowflakes along this lonely trail and causing me to pause every few miles or so are the remains of Louisiana plantations, their Corinthian columns rotten, and the majestic allèes of old, mere petrified soldiers of twisted bark. In the age-old grapple between purity and evil, their limbs climb upward as if reaching for the heavens, while their long arthritic roots burrow deep into the clay earth. Corroded iron gates lean in the wind; bits of their broken curlicues are hidden in the tall grass like Easter eggs.
I am both fascinated and repelled by this region, the Old South in its glory days of magnolia blossoms and bloodstained ground, where soiled Confederate gray and the boom of cannons still pierce the night. If I close my eyes, from some ancient crevice comes the tinkle of banjo music and the crackling of burning sugar cane and the rat-a-tat-tat of a thousand dancing belles. Decades before, I wandered through similar fields and picked pearls of cotton, which I tucked into the pocket of my pink toreador pants, a trinket of my home turf to keep my dreams squirming with life. Perhaps these mansions, these ash ghosts that rattle the cages of my memory, are the exact houses that caught my girlish fancy as I wished on stars and conjured images of the perfect future.
Officially, this current adventure is nothing more than a means to an end. My younger sister, Carleen, and I are on our way to Kentucky from California, where we will join Irene, our Baby Sister, Miss Olive, our grandmother; plus dozens of friends and relatives to celebrate Lila Mae's seventy-fifth birthday. Unlike the others who have chosen the lickety-split friendly skies, we have opted to leave a few weeks early, wending our way across the American landscape in a car-the scenic route, if you will-the exact route (if such an absurd thing is even possible) that Lila Mae, our discombobulated mother, and her four young children took several decades ago when our family set out for California on Route 66.
The object of our desire is a glimpse of the good old days, before progress and the bulldozer ambushed our heritage. Simple as this task sounds, Carleen and I might as well be on all fours, scraping around for a misplaced gold doubloon.
At my side, darting in and out of consciousness, is Carleen. Cradling an assortment of road maps and nestled in bittersweet dreams, her blond head is tipped against the car frame. A tiny fractured robin, she is, with her feathery hair blowing across her face and the disappointment of her life somehow settling in her wings. She shifts and slides and twitches her mouth into a tortured smile. Every once in a while, she will bolt upright and say, "Where are we, Rebecca?"
Sound asleep in the backseat are our teenage daughters, Ava and Cassie, or, as Carleen and I refer to them when we don't think they're listening: Lolita Number One (mine) and Lolita Number Two (hers). They are adorned in grape nail polish, tank tops, and hoops that pierce various parts of their bodies, all of which clash with the notion that Carleen and I coddle of ourselves as strict mothers.
I roll down all the windows, turn on the CD player and select Johnny Cash. His voice-gravel spliced with black velvet-fills the air as he sings "Folsom Prison Blues". A second wind sweeps through the car as Carleen jumps up and the girls stir. We turn up the music and sing along, our lungs bubbling with the Southern humidity.
I hear the train a comin' it's rolling round the bend, and I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin' on But that train keeps rollin' on down to San Antone. Sing, Johnny, sing! Carleen yippees and churns the dial until the speakers thunder. If I had eyes in the back of my head, I would see that the girls, now wide awake and trussed in headphone wires, are plugging their ears and flashing their eyes to the heavens. Donning their metal headbands, they listen to CDs while Carleen paws the floor, searching for the Styrofoam cooler of Coca-Colas. She flips one open and hands it to me, our normal symbol of armistice when we've been bickering and want to reseal our sisterly bond. We've grown up believing that all rifts can be chinked with a Coca-Cola.
For the past few days, we have had beaucoup unfinished business, stemming from what is commonly known as the sweating skull incident. The skull is nothing spectacular-an amateurish drawing on a concrete wall of a skeleton with beads of sweat flying from it, an ice bag and a sign that says: WARNING...700 MILES OF DESERT.
It is flabbergasting, even to me, but the sign was the number one item on my list of things to see on this trip. Because Carleen read the map wrong, we looped around with the last streaks of daylight above us, ending up nowhere near the skull. Missing it, I badgered Carleen, was tantamount to traveling to Egypt without seeing the pyramids, or Paris sans the Eiffel Tower, or Peru minus Machu Picchu. On and on I ranted, ending with one of my Homeric, end of civilization as we know it speeches. Fed up with my harangue, Cassie finally hollered, Gosh, Aunt Beck, it's ONLY a sweating skull!
Through the day, I have lambasted Carleen for taking after the Stalkers, our mother's side of the family, who have the sense of direction of an amnesiac hummingbird, and she has crucified me for being high strung and demanding-Wooten tendencies. Had she only known, Carleen informs me, that the Queen of Sheba would make me the reader of maps, pumper of gas, dispenser of junk food, snapper of photos, and tracker of funnel clouds, I would have taken the blasted plane to Kentucky.
The two Lolitas amuse themselves with their electronic paraphernalia, and drive us crazy with the incessant chant, How far are we from the Smithsonian? Unsuspecting bystanders might be impressed by the budding culture vultures, but in truth our young lasses have other interests at heart: seeing Sonny and Cher's bell-bottoms and linking up with two teenage boys they met at the El Tovar Lodge at the Grand Canyon who are now summer tour guides at the Washington, D.C. museum.
Suddenly, a panel of storm clouds moves across the sky. The wind tickles the willows, making a sound like the rustling of taffeta ball gowns. A bolt of heat lightning springs to life every few seconds, something that causes Carleen, a world-class scaredy-cat, to gasp and shriek. Go back to sleep, I tell her. As unlikely as it is, Carleen has spotted a vagrant and slams her foot against an imaginary brake pedal. Nobody else can even see the man, but from yards away in the black night, Carleen swears he is the Night Stalker.
I'm not kidding! she insists. It's him!
I assure her that Richard Ramirez, the Los Angeles serial killer nicknamed the Night Stalker, had been sentenced to prison long ago. (It deserves mention that today alone Carleen has already spotted a grizzly bear, a wild dingo, a Gila monster, three funnel clouds, and yet another rambler who was Charles Manson's double!)
But, regardless of these far-fetched notions, Carleen, much like our mother, has a knack for getting everybody all riled up. In spite of ourselves, we begin talking about Martians, Tasmanian devils, and the killer nobody ever found who had strangled the schoolgirl in the lime green socks and left her by the wayside.
Imagine, I think, if we were on a movie screen with an audience watching us, traipsing across the treacherous open road, two young daughters under our protective charge. Perhaps at this very moment, knowing there's a villain waiting to pounce, they are shouting warnings: Stop! Wait! No! It's possible, too, that they are snorting to themselves, Morons, what did they expect when they hightailed it across country by themselves?
Hovering over the treetops like a crown of rosebuds is the glow of an approaching town. In an empty field our headlights illuminate a white-robed Jesus standing like a lonely hitchhiker. PREPARE TO MEET THY MAKER, it warns. The Savior, crackled like an Italian fresco, stretches his arms east and west and stares us down with eyes pricked with bullet holes.
We zoom along the highway, passing motels with kidney-shaped swimming pools and coin- operated palominos. We pass roadside stands selling spiced pecans and a fireworks shack named Big Daddy's, which even in the wee hours, has a sizable crowd purchasing Black Cats and Killer Bees. TURN AROUND, the girls holler. STOP! Carleen gives in, rummaging through her wallet to find change. But I press the accelerator, making them pout, We never do anything fun! When I tell them we can't keep stopping for this and that and the other, Carleen chuckles, You sound just like Mom, an observation that makes me wince.
With that, from a peephole of my memory, I see our last innocent decade. It is 1959 and there is a rickety Packard filled with four screaming meemies and a starry-eyed woman enveloped in Arpege. Above us are the Texas stars as bright as Christmas ornaments and on the radio Elvis is singing All Shook Up. Behind the wheel Lila Mae is begging her unruly kids to cut out all that racket, irked that the Queen of Sheba's too busy with them movie magazines to pitch in! All the while, there is talk of fresh starts and dreams of gold-cobbled streets.
When that trip, which should have taken several days, took several months, Lila Mae's explanation for the delay came in a windfall of verbiage: I got waylaid, I was sidetracked, as if the expressions themselves were the culprits that had ensnared her, not her own bad decisions. Through the decades, Carleen and I have toiled in the garden-hoeing, tilling, pulling all suspect matter by the roots, searching for proof that we are not our mother's daughters. But, we are obviously trapped in Lila Mae's gypsy footprints. As behind schedule as we are, Carleen and I are easily coaxed, often pulling to the roadside simply to marvel at the freight trains and summer thunderheads. We stop for chili dogs in the Gator Cafe, a diner with an enormous alligator perched on the roof like a bizarre bonnet. We stay in the Valdosta Arms, where every room has a velvet painting of Martin Luther King, Jr. For hours, we travel behind a grass-green Volvo that bounces like a covered wagon, staring at the bumper sticker: VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS.
With the wind velocity approaching ferocious, and dawn looming before us, we enter St. John's Parish, checking into the Magnolia Plantation Lodge, an inn with faux Greek columns and a crystal-chandeliered lobby. The female employees wear crinolines and the night clerk, a marble- white man named Bud Coffey, is dressed as Rhett Butler.
Soon enough, we are in our room with its frizzy carpeting and chenille spread and a rackety swamp cooler. But, at least there is a television that will give us an update on the hurricane. I open my travel book, thinking I will scout the pages for interesting sights along our path, but I am drowsy.
With the moonlight blanching the drapes, I drift to sleep, remembering places we stayed years ago, wondering if this might even be one of them. When I close my eyes, I still can't shake the image of Lila Mae, one that blinks to me from a movie screen in another galaxy. She is a chatterbox in deep conversation witha truck-stop waitress, then she's a confused figure hooked over a road map, a helpful filling station attendant at her elbow. I see the wind sweeping her print dress around her legs as she stands by an isolated roadside, waving a hankie, hoping for someone to help us with a flat tire or broken radiator. She is trying to avoid serious trouble, when all the while we suspected we were already in it.
Thinking her arthritic knee would slow us down and her singing would drive us crazy, Carleen and I have left her behind in California, cushioning our farewell with assurances and avowals: Someday, you'll have to come along with us, Mom. It would be so much fun, I said to her, never explaining why she couldn't come on that particular trip, never defining when someday might turn out to be, acting as if the decision to stay behind had been her idea, even though the choice to come with us was never presented to her in any formal fashion.
Oh, honeeee! I would love that! She makes two fists and pumps them as if rooting for her favorite ball team. In the Los Angeles sky is a froth of coral smog and a hazy sun. Lila Mae stands shadowed by the crepe myrtle and a swing from my grandmother's porch and cheers, I really would love that!
We should do it then, right, Carleen? I say. Absolutely! she replies. Everybody realizes that this is a now-or-never trip, and we also know that there is still time for Lila Mae to pack-not in her usual way of taking every item she owns-but certainly enough notice to gather the basic essentials. Butm we remain dead silent, careful not to prompt her into actually joining us. Even as the tide of promise rises and buoys our spirits, sadness envelops me. We all know a trip of that sort is never to be.
Don't forget to call me, girls. And you take good care of my little grandbabies, she laments. She is wearing the morose gaze of a convict facing the electric chair. Who knows, this could be the last time we ever see each other again. When I tell her to cut out the dramatic stuff, that she's fit as a fiddle, she retorts, Well, for someone who almost had both legs amputated, I suppose I'm doin' okay. Won't you be surprised if I DO kick the bucket! In her eye is a decoy of a thought, one that she's surrounded with velvet ropes. You might not be celebrating my birthday after all . . . you could be gathering for my FUNERAL! She folds her arms and tilts her head in a queenly pose, thrilled to have the last disturbing word.
Whatever . . . Cassie drawls out a bored response. But my Ava, a delicate soul who is distressed by Lila Mae's possibilities, protests, Please don't say that, Grandma! We'll see you at your birthday party. Love you!
Yeah, I remind them all, let's don't get too choked up, we'll be together in a couple of weeks. I take a good look at Lila Mae in her early-morning disarray-the matted pearly white hair, the supermarket bedroom slippers. This is certainly not the mother I thought I wanted-an empress in coronet braids and fox furs-a mother, who with one wave of her kid-gloved hand, could build castles and destroy kingdoms. Lila Mae is another story-a pastiche of ordinary traits and mind- boggling contradictions-a housewife whose own shadow frightens her, yet whose desk drawers contain correspondence from famous criminals and whose den walls are wallpapered with autographed eight by ten glossies of Leona Helmsley, O.J. Simpson, even the Boston Strangler.
Now you girls have emergency supplies, don't ya? She flashes us an impish grin. I wouldn't want Metal Fang to get aholt of ya!
Cassie snatches the bait, asking Lila Mae who the heck is Metal Fang. Lila Mae answers coyly, Oh, just some foreign killer with one of them hook arms they never caught . . . You ask yer mothers. Yes, if Fang's out there, you'll need flashlights and flares and the like.
Mother! What are we, six? I gripe with a huff and a spin of my eyes. Anyway, don't you think I've thought of all that?
Even as I protest her nagging, I realize that Ióa Miss Lifetime Achievement for Organization award recipient, someone who spends hours quadruple checking my list of things to do-did not bring an emergency kit. Instead of thanking Lila Mae, whose efficiency annoys me, I chastise her, then make a mental note to stop at a hardware store before we get too far away.
Now you girls call me by Toos-dee; I'll worry myself to pieces if you don't, she calls to us as the car slides a few inches down the steep driveway. There'd be nothing left, if I lost my girls. Nothing at all!
There she goes with the dee business, we joke. Have a nice dee! What dee is my doctor's appointment again? We even start crooning: Night and dee, you are the one!
Well . . . you girls. She looks hurt and misunderstood. I'll just shut my dumb trap, I guess.
Oh, don't be so touchy, I tell her. Can't you take a joke? I release the brake and the car leaps backward.
We blow Lila Mae a kiss and promise to say hello to the Old Highway for her. We'll belt out her favorite songs, Old Man River and Tennessee Waltz; we'll rub the fenders of the Cadillacs stuck in the ground outside Amarillo, Texas. We'll give our regards to the Big Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma.
Moments before she disappears from view, she lifts her sapphire-veined hand. Like an actress taking an unexpected curtain call, we see her pink fingertips as she waves another goodbye. I yell, See you in Kentucky! although I'm not sure the words get through.
But, now, as the cheap motel blanket scrubs my cheek and I listen to Ava and Cassie horsing around through the plaster wall that separates our rooms, I wonder why we didn't bring Lila Mae along with us. Her lonely figure in the garden waving goodbye, the eucalyptus trees shifting and swaying overhead, and the curve of her smile, produce a haunting brew of emotions. I wonder why, just a mere week after saying goodbye to her, my brain is playing tricks on me, telling me how oh-so-easyóeven fun-it would have been to have her traveling with us.
I call the desk clerk and ask for an early wake-up call; then I snap off the light. In the bed next to me, Carleen tosses and turns. I stare at the phosphorescent shadows against the ceiling and rejoin the words that still have me in their grip: Well, if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine I bet I'd move it on over a little, Farther down the line, far from Folsom Prison, that's where I want to stay, and I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away. Unless Metal Fang or Charlie Manson gets us or we actually bump into the killer who murdered the schoolgirl in lime-green socks, we will be seeing Lila Mae in a few weeks' time. Most of the loves of her past and current life will be gathered in a big crepe-papered room. We will play her special tunes and sweep across the dance floor in slow waltzes and lively polkas. And we will feast on her favorite dishes: fried chicken and coconut cream pies. We will lift our spirits with crackling cold Asti Spumante. And in the dark morning hours before the Kentucky sun rises, we will sift through photo albums and swap Lila Mae stories, doubling over in laughter or shaking with tears, and there will be much celebration and merriment. This isn't the way it really happened, but this is the story anyway. Rebecca Jean Wooten Hamilton Mariani St. Clair Chapter One Rebecca The Queen of Sheba MAY 1999 A mere two months after the grand opening of Miz Becky's BBQ Shack in Blue Lick Springs, Kentucky, Rebecca's secretary, in total hysterics, pounded on the door, interrupting an important meeting with Rebecca's husband and their business managers. The girl was talking in such circles-heaving and waving her arms this way and that-but, finally, they got it out of her that Jimmy Buzz Burkle had just called. Burkle, the restaurant's manager, said that two men with pantyhose pulled over their heads-one fellow long and rough like a corn stalk, the other as thick and square as a butcher block-had showed up around closing time and tried to stick the place up.
It was an armed robbery! Tiffany, the secretary, kept repeating. Her bunny-rabbit-pink eyes blinked and enlarged as if adjusting to the shock of the information. Something you'd expect in New York City, but in such a small town? It's just horrible beyond belief!
Normally, Rebecca would have prayed for any disruption to a meeting where the big topic of conversation was the ungodly amount of money she'd been spending. But Miz Becky's was the ultimate touchy subject. The robbery was also the sort of mishap she feared would happen when she and David got the harebrained idea to open the restaurant, a business they knew nothing about (one that was twenty-five hundred miles away from their Los Angeles home to boot) an undertaking that even successful restaurateurs advised them to keep away from.
She told the girl they'd get the lowdown in just a second and tried to shoo her away. But Tiffany was as stubborn as a mule. She continued to stand in the doorway, the shadows from the blinds slashed across her linen suit like prison bars. I mean, this is really a shock, especially after the way you built Kentucky up . . . shouldn't I try to reach Mr. Burkle?
With so many people in the room, Rebecca was in no position to do what she really wanted to do, which was to double up her fist and threaten the girl. The secretary had been given specific instructions to hold Rebecca's calls, plus, it was the second time that day alone that she'd gone out of her way to do the exact opposite of what she'd been told.
Earlier, Tiffany had dropped the first bomb, informing Rebecca that the developer who'd been buying up property right and left in her hometown had his eye on her grandmother's farm. Tiffany knew the subject was one that struck panic in Rebecca's heart, but with a shudder of her skirt's kick pleat, she had dashed away, leaving behind just enough information to make Rebecca nauseous at a time when she had meetings and couldn't get to the bottom of things.
The worst part about the situation was that Tiffany had already managed to get some key players riled up. David, Rebecca's husband, took a deep breath and gave his head an irritated shake. Great, he let out a puff of air. Just what we need . . . St. Valentine's Day Massacre!
Since he was the very definition of stability, a man who didn't jump to conclusions, his response was peculiar, especially since the massacre was an expression Rebecca herself always used to get her point across. Besides, nowhere in Tiffany's informationóas earth-shattering as she tried to make it-was there anything suggesting the stickup was as drastic as all that.
As perturbed as David was, it was nothing compared to their business manager, Reginald C. Peepers, Jr. He and his associates at Peepers, Peepers and Fishbein were on hand for the monthly, and ghastly, financial meeting. After hearing the robbery news, Peepers, whose eyes were now all lit up like high-beam headlights, gave the table a hearty slap. Just what I predicted! he bellowed. Just what I predicted!
The man, or Little Peep as everyone called him behind his back, was a five-foot pipsqueak with lollipop-pink skin and a mouse-brown hairpiece that sat on his head like a fried egg. Yes, yes, we were afraid of something like this. One way or another the restaurant business will absolutely kill you. And don't say I didn't tell you so!
That's right, Boss Man! It's the toughest damned business going, On cue, Phil Bustamante, Peepers's chief yes-man, chimed in. Nine out of ten joints are shut down within six months. The rest of Peepers's posseóa lachrymose batch of sycophants and henchmen-had their ears pricked in curiosity like anxious German shepherds. They made grunting noises and shifted in their chairs as the stench of triumph wafted over their table.
Since Rebecca had been on the hot seat the entire afternoon justifying her business decisions in general, and Miz Becky's BBQ in particular, the timing of the robbery couldn't have been worse. Just as they did once a month, Little Peep and his lynch mob had marched into David's office with attachè cases, all bulging with financial reports and charts. Peep, passing out statements to each participant, had just spent the last hour reviewing every line and column. They had already pored through the stock portfolio, the household account, and the commercial investment statements. There had also been a review of the redecorating budget of David's corporate offices, a Spanish Inquisition that involved every piece of furniture and art in his voluminous facility. Peepers's eyesócynical, investigative sickles-had wheeled around the room, taking in the Brazilian mahogany desks, the modern abstract oils, and the Art Deco bronzes. Moving his finger in a rainbow shape, he said, It's attractive, all right, but expensive. Because Rebecca had overseen the project, he automatically-and erroneously-assumed it was an extravagant debacle.
After that, they spent the next thirty minutes staring at Little Pepps' Grand Scheme of Things economic plan-some program that had them living like the Amish for decades then leading the life of Riley when they were eighty or ninety years old. It was propped up on an easel, a big multicolored chart, sectioned off like a pie and filled with arrows and stars and other symbols that were all Greek to Rebecca. To make it work-Little Peep always stared at her at this point-she had to cut her expenses by seventy-five percent. Especially your Kentucky interests. He had glared at her with his pinball eyes at halfmast and added, I am dead serious.
Probably to torture her, he saved the worst topic for last. This was the moment of truth Rebecca had been dreading since the previous meeting. A sheaf of papers an inch thick, the heading said: MIZZ BECKY'S BBQ SHACK: PROFIT AND LOSS STATEMENT. Rebecca made a mental note of the misspelling of Miz, something-as minor as it was-to use against Peepers if he got uppity.
Little Peep had cleared his throat the way he usually did when he was paving the way for a bombshell and said: The firm has run the numbers for the barbecue restaurant and, just as I imagined, it is NOT a pretty picture. In fact, as any fool can see, it's an unqualified disaster.
What kind of picture do you expect after such a short time: the Mona Lisa? Rebecca, her arms plaited at her chest, had refused to give Peep the satisfaction of even glancing at the report. Besides, the man was like a broken record with his run the numbers diatribe. We've run the numbers and I'm afraid- We'll get back to you after we've run the numbers, blah, blah, blah.
I certainly don't expect miracles, Little Peep blared out, not from this project! What I do expect is numbers that reflect promise. You could keep Miz Becky's open until doomsday and it still wouldn't matter! Little Peep extracted a monogrammed handkerchief and mopped his sweaty forehead. When he was anxious or excited-usually when there was somebody else's bad news to discuss-his system sizzled and wheezed, as if you were hearing the motor running for all his organs. My advice? he roared, Cut your losses now . . . dump it.
Rebecca, horrified and panicky, hopped up and said, Over my dead body! defending the newly opened business as one that would practically run itself, was in highly capable hands, and would be less trouble than all of their other business ventures put together. Kentucky is not like Los Angeles. It has a completely different work ethic! All this was uttered before she knew anything about the robbery and was accompanied by a Byronic speech singing hosannas in the highest to her beloved home state.
Miz Becky's wasn't one of his typical cold business deals, Rebecca reminded him. Families were involved-mostly relatives and old friends from the Blue Lick Springs crowd, whom you couldn't just abandon overnight. If you ask me, we haven't given the restaurant a decent chance, she protested. It's only been a couple of months, for crying out loud!
All the same . . . all the same . . . it's a couple of months too many. The handwriting is on the wall . . . Little Peep lurched forward in his chair and said, Close it!
Not only did Little Peep's speech take gall, it was pure, unadulterated gobbledygook. First of all, he kept insisting that only a sentimental idiot would have invested in a rural town, a spot he assumed was draped in cobwebs and despair. If that was true, then why was CASTLECO, a huge development company, swooping up property right and left? Plus, Peep's current position was the diametrical opposite of the advice he usually gave them. Time after time, he had convinced Rebecca and David to make one investment or another, then later, he and his accountants would march in with counterfeit smiles, swinging their Halliburton briefcases and making a million excuses why their bum-steer stocks or limited partnerships hadn't skyrocketed yet. Stay the course! he would bark like a determined ship's captain. You can't expect miracles overnight. Now Little Peep had the nerve to demand that Miz Becky's, a brand-new restaurant, was supposed to be making money hand over fist, but the thousands they gave him to invest was supposed to be given the same treatment as a Mt. Everest climber-something you wished well, but figured you might never see again.
Rebecca positively refused to allow some weasly accountant to dictate what she and David should do with their own money. With her jaw clenched and her eyes set in a dark smolder, she announced, I'm sick of these dotcom investments that we're stuck with until kingdom come. They're just worthless pieces of paper. At least Miz Becky's is something tangible. Rebecca wasn't sure David, who ordinarily played referee between her and Little Peep, felt the same way about it, but he was on the telephone, which was the main reason why she was getting by with the bickering to begin with. If we end up in the poorhouse, she continued, then I'd rather be the one who put us there, and I want the fruits of our bankruptcy efforts surrounding us!
If that's your aim, he hollered, then trophies and Dom Perignon are in order. You're the fastest horse on the track, a Triple Crown winner! Although Rebecca could tell the blue-cheeked Peepers was furious-he was all puffed up like a tuba player struggling to hit a high note-he did manage to avoid calling her Secretariat. According to his bookkeeper, this was Rebecca's code name in interoffice memos.
Investments should be made with your head, not your heart. Peepers plucked his suspenders with an exultant snap and added, Just look at the numbers we ran. You'll see for yourself.
Huh, she retorted, there's more to life than numbers.
Actually, he said coolly, There isn't. If it doesn't work on paper, it doesn't work. He rapped his knuckles against the desk with the finality of a judge's gavel, turning right and left to include his cohorts. This is a hopeless case!
Even if Rebecca talked to the men until she was blue in the face, she had a feeling that it was Peepers, Peepers and Fishbeinónot Miz Becky's-who were actually the hopeless cases. What did the fuddy-duddy accountants know about dreams and visionary plans anyway? When they made every point by referring to columns and graphs, they dismissed as rubbish any project that didn't make money galore, and denigrated all purchases that were driven by emotions or instinct. Unfortunately, the latter described perfectly all the love children of Rebecca's investment philosophy-the antiques, artwork, old buildings, and property she collected like charms on a bracelet. She was attracted to feel-good and pride-of-ownership projects, three-dimensional items that could be touched, admired, or passed on to future generations.
If you did it Peepers's way, you'd be living in a shabby apartment in the slums with a slew of eye- popping bankbooks and financial statements-one of those human-interest stories highlighted on the evening news. After you'd kicked the bucket, neighbors would say, Why, we always thought they were as poor as church mice!
Truthfully, Rebecca hadn't seen eye to eye with any of their business managers-there had been dozens of them-but Little Peep took the cake. David wasn't crazy about him, either, but he claimed the man was a brilliant economic analyst and, therefore, a necessary evil. As the CEO of a corporation with divisions as far-flung as film, publishing, and cosmetics, David was the last person whose business judgment Rebecca would question. But, as far as she was concerned, Peep would have to be Einstein, Galileo, and Socrates in one to justify putting up with him.
Rebecca knew it was way too much to ask that her husband would defend the barbecue business in public, particularly since the robbery news, but she lobbied him for support anyway.
David, she had pleaded, aren't you going to say anything? The way he had eyed her, you'd have thought he'd forgotten that the barbecue restaurant had actually been his idea. It can't be as bad as everyone's making it sound.
It might not be, David's fingertips gingerly drummed the incriminating report as if tapping hot coals. But it sure isn't good. As usual, crisis galvanized all the angles and colors of his face to some stratospheric level of appeal; the muscles beneath his Italian suit were racing with adrenaline, the wheels were turning, the mental gears were shifting. Well, he sighed, we knew it was going to be risky.
It didn't take much to picture the scene unfolding in Blue Lick Springs: The tiny Mayberry of a spot would be all atwitter with purring telephones and revved up hot rods. The American Gothics and tobacco farmers would gather their toddlers and grandmas alike to flock to Main Street. Pappy Bagler, the area's Paul Revere, would sputter down Hot Bottom Road on his electric lawn mower, shouting, There's been a robbery! A BIG ROBBERY!
Instead of doing what she usually did-which was to turn ordinary issues into uproar and uproar into cataclysms, Rebecca tried to add some positive angle to the mess. Now, now, we know how ultradramatic Jimmy Buzz can be. It's possible that the robbery was nothing. Besides, we couldn't be in better hands. After all, he is the sheriff.
Sheriff? Nobody ever told me that! Peepers, his eyebrows like two eagles in flight, turned to Bustamante for verification. Did you know about this, Phil?
Hell, no! Nobody told me a thing about it. Phil Bustamante shoved the air, his hands like two stop signs, as if to say, Hey, don't pin this on me.
This isn't exactly high treason, is it? Rebecca boomeranged the dirty looks right back to the two men. Anyway, haven't you ever heard of someone with two jobs?
It's not the number, it's the type for God's sake. Little Peep's bright red bow tie bobbed at his throat. Barbecue and bullets? Quite a combo if you ask me.
Now that she knew how Little Peep felt about two jobs, she wasn't going to mention Burkle's third: He played the washtub for the Kornkob Mountain Pickers, a local bluegrass band. Anyway, they were stuck with Jimmy Buzz since it was his world-famous barbecue recipe Miz Becky's was using.
Is there a reason why we're stalling? asked Little Peep. Get Mr. Burkle on the phone. We could have total pandemonium on our hands. You could tell by the way he was talking that havoc was just what he was hoping for.
I'd be shocked if that was the case, said Rebecca, stopping to rustle around in her purse as if the robbery was the least of her worries. Very shocked, actually.
Well, said Tiffany, that's not the impression he gave ME. He said it was urgent, extremely urgent!
The only thing going Rebecca's way was that they couldn't get through to the restaurant. All circuits are busy, the woman on the recording made the announcement sound as if she were imparting good news. Please try your call later.
Peep yanked at his shirt sleeve and checked his platinum Cartier watch. Seeing the hour, he flipped his palms into the air and fumed, How can the circuits be busy? Are the Hatfields and McCoys at it again? Does anything in the sticks work?
While the minutes ticked by and Little Peep's momentum mounted, Rebecca was in the advanced stages of hyperventilation. David still wasn't saying much, except Just keep dialing the phone, but he didn't have to. Although they had an ironclad rule to maintain a harmonious appearance in public, she was familiar with the aura of catastrophe. A typhoon was brewing in her husband's eyes, turmoil that turned them a ferocious turquoise. They were not exactly boring holes in her, but they were telling Rebecca the losses were so drastic, the general situation so dire that, if she would just hold her horses and listen to reason, she would draw the same conclusion. In other words, he looked like he wanted to brain her.
It was too good to be true that the phone would stay busy or that Little Peep would finally get fed up and leave or that Tiffany, who was tsk-tsking like an officious Mother Hen, would rush off to a hot date. Nor would David, running late for another appointment, suddenly say, I'm outta here, and tell Rebecca to fill him in later. No, no, the fortuitous scattering of the witnesses would not happen. In a matter of minutes, the sheriff would be on the line and all the bloody details, like worms after a torrential rain, would come bobbing to the surface.
While everyone was preoccupied with red ink, Rebecca made a fast getaway into her husband's private bathroom. As she stood under the blue light, staring at the mirror, her chest heaved up and down in a struggle for composure. It was a pretty dismal sight: Her eyes were two olive nuggets suspended above cheeks as pale as lily petals and her hair, reddish brown and usually lustrous, was a droopy mop. The henna rinse, which was supposed to brighten and lift her face, could only do so much. After all, it was a hair dye, not a crane. Overall, it was a look that would have sparked her grandmother to say, Whar the devil ya goin' lookiní lak that? Ragpicker's alley?
Dumping the contents of her cosmetics bag on the counter, she grabbed her lipstick and the vial of Chanel No. 5, daubing behind each earlobe. Good old Chanel, she thought, her lifesaver. Two swipes of Russet Moon, a whisk of seashell-pink blush and a fragment of allure reappeared. Trying to repair her mussed hair do, she took her brush, giving her hair one hundred, very deliberate strokes. She noticed that the lightbulb was flickering; plus, they were low on hand lotion and jasmine room spray, so she searched for a notepad, making a list of items for Tiffany to pick up. She opened every drawer and scrutinized every shelf in the medicine cabinet, ending up with all sorts of things to buy-cologned soaps and hair tonics-and even more reminders to call the painter to touch up the floorboard, the tile man to regrout the backsplash, and an electrician to install a dimmer switch.
She must have lost track of time, because David jiggled the doorknob and said, Rebecca, are you okay? She fibbed and said she was fine, although she was anything but.
There was an excellent reason why Rebecca was dawdling, why calamitious thoughts in two languages-coup de grace and final nails in her coffin-sprinted through her head. Somehow, she had gotten involved with three new businesses besides Miz Becky's, ones that her husband and Little Peep knew absolutely nothing about. None of them-namely a barbershop, confectionery, and bowling alley-were actually off the ground yet, but the trio of skeletons were thumping the closet door. So, it would be a total disaster if Sheriff Burkle filled them in on the robbery and accidentally spilled the beans. Since all lives in Blue Lick were an open book and nobody in town honored the psychological warfare of husbands and wives and accountants, this was not only possible, but highly probable.
Rebecca could hear it now-all the particulars about the shipment containing the antique barber pole and the decorative bowling trophies. There would be exclamations of disbelief about the flood of candy shop employment applications . . . and oohs and ahhs over the big, expensive marble counter being installed.
And, if bad karma and Lady Fortune were really in cahoots against her, Burkle could even start blabbing about Rosemont. For the past several months, Rebecca'd been driving everyone crazy with questions about the Greek Revival plantation and nobody ever had the scoop. This would probably be the one time she'd get the unabridged lowdown. Rebecca hadn't actually purchased the house yet-for the single reason that it wasn't for sale-but she wasn't going to let such minor details keep her from exploring the possibility.
Rebecca wasn't a fool; she knew David and Little Peep would find out about all the new activity sooner or later, but she wanted to dole out the information in her own good time and at opportune moments like the split second after the Wall Street Journal announced record profits for David's corporation, or-better yet-after she and her husband shared a bottle of Pauillac and a moonlit walk on Malibu Beach. Until then, she had no choice except to tell David and Little Peep the same thing she always told the U.S. Customs officer: I have nothing to declare.
At the moment, the mere suggestion that she was contemplating more activity in the one-horse Kentucky town could trigger Armageddon . . . well, she didn't think it would be THAT bad, but it would be tiptop mayhem all right. But the two men couldn't be any madder at her than she was at herself. She had played up the town as heaven on earth, only to have gun-toting hoodlums make her into a liar. She had even brushed aside her grandmother's and uncle's comments. Oh, Blue Lick ain't as perfect as ya think! We got our problems, too, yessireebob! Olive would poke her hickory cane into the freshly mowed grass and say, We got hooligans lak ever'one else.
As usual, Rebecca had taken their comments as the high-pitched fits of small-town dramatists. Their idea of a crime is a couple dollars missing from a vending machine, Rebecca assured David, or a few stolen hubcaps.
All the romantic beach outings in the world wouldn't guarantee David's support for a project as ill- fated as the one Peep described. And she could lobby all night long about the barbecue restaurant being David's bright idea, but Rebecca had much more at stake, since Blue Lick Springs was her hometown.
While they waited to reach Sheriff Burkle, Peepers and his associates were already making more noise than the ringing of a Christmas Eve cash register. Bustamante was punching a laptop computer, some guy named Conklin was running numbers on his pocket calculator, and Little Peep was dictating a memo on his tape recorder. He kept fiddling with the financial reports, shuffling and fanning them around like a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. The last thing he said before they dialed Sheriff Burkle again was, Yes, yes, we should take immediate steps to shut the place down.
When Rebecca didn't jump up and scream bloody murder, Peepers added, I'm talking first thing tomorrow morning!
We'll see about that, won't we? she muttered defiantly. She swiped a look at the despicable Peepers. He was holding a Montblanc ballpoint pen in his hand like a billy club. He beat out the Dragnet theme against the table and gave her an amused, deadeye stare. For all her big talk about Little Peep not having the upper hand and for all her threats about wrapping his pretentious satin bow tie around his neck and choking him until his tongue popped out, there was no denying that he was going to be very tough to deal with, very tough indeed.