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BLACKJACK HARRY - Novel Excerpt

March 3, 2019

All In

 

         While Mimi waits at the corner of a convenience store about to commit a crime, this is what she believes about herself, and her opinion is largely correct. She had a pretty song once that was whole and charming, but the song became badly broken and remains shattered. The old song was once a sweet melody; now it’s something stale, ragged, and atonal.        

         Weeks before her intended crime, Mimi was in the third week of her senior year and on her way out of the main campus library, when she stopped on the library steps to answer her ringing phone. It was a crisp evening with a New England chill in the air. She removed the buzzing, vibrating phone from her purse and wiped her finger across the face of the display.

         The text came from her sometime beau, called “Kip” by everyone except his parents. Kip is her boyfriend when home during the holidays since the age of fourteen. She is about to be twenty-two, one year beyond the alleged age of maturity.

         A panic surged through the stock markets the day Kip sent her to text, but it didn’t concern young Kip. He had other matters on his mind. Making money was his father’s problem; spending it was Kip’s. This was sort of Mimi’s problem too.

         Kip and a friend were about to pay an unexpected visit to Mimi. She lived in a sorority house along Sorority Row. Kip texted he had just dropped out of his prestigious college in New Jersey at the start of his senior year. His other options, according to his text, were being suspended or expelled. He intended a three or four-day trip to Boston to celebrate “being set free” and wanted Mimi’s presence.

         “No party w/o U, M.”

         There was a certain expectation in the circles in which Mimi and Kip traveled that the two undisciplined children from the Midwest would one day be married as adults. This was not an illogical assumption. Perhaps Kip expected them to marry, but he never spoke of it. Mimi never spoke of marriage either, but when she thought of marriage to Kip, she imagined it might happen at some far-off date, say when she was thirty. What they would do with their lives if they married was another matter, since neither had decided what to do with their lives after college; both were aimless and lacked any true purpose.

         She texts in reply: “Can’t wait to blow this joint.”

 

         A few weeks before the attempted robbery, Mimi sat at the dining table of the sorority house finishing off dinner when Kip called again and said he was fifteen minutes away. It was a good idea to finish off dinner before she and Kip went off on a tear, because sometimes food was forgotten.

         Although Mimi had a date arriving within the hour, she had packed a small suitcase and a gym bag. Rather than just standing the young man up, she asked her sorority sister, Jean Roberts, if she would go out with the young man who was Mimi’s date. Jean was an attractive young woman, but true to her boyfriend back home, and so sister Jean declined most dates, although tonight she would help her sister Mimi out of a jam by going on a platonic date when her fellow senior called for Mimi. This was the last time Jean would see Mimi. It was the last time Mimi would see any of her sisters or they her. Only Jean knew Mimi was traveling with Kip. Mimi had informed the housemother that she was going home to Chicago for the weekend.

         Instead of meeting Kip at the sorority house, she waited for Kip at the student union where she had told Kip she would meet him. Waiting there was better than taking a chance on running into the classmate she was standing up. Exciting, but erratic and unreliable, Mimi had become expert at standing young men up, although this was the first time she had stood anyone up during her second senior year.

         Shortly after Mimi arrived at the student union, Kip pulled up to the curb in a red Saab convertible with the top down despite the imminent coming of snow and a frost in the air. The cold air, Kip later explained, helped to sober him up. The interior of the Saab was white and appeared to be leather. The car was not his; he had borrowed it. Three weeks later, after he failed to return it, the Saab would be reported stolen and recovered in Newark considerably damaged, without its tires, and the white leather interior ruined by a sharp instrument or instruments.

         He was tall and thin, dark-haired and considered good looking, with white skin, and apple red cheeks. He was not faithful to Mimi and was not expected to be. About her faithfulness, nothing had been said, and Mimi considered herself free to do as she pleased, which was what she had done.

         It made women swoon at times the way Kip wore his long soft hair in a variety of styles and ponytails and went a few days unshaven most of the time. He looked like an intelligent but troubled man; one of those was true. Tonight his hair was in two ponytails secured by rubber bands. Casual in dress, he attempted a proletarian look, but he wasn’t very good at it. He looked like a rich kid trying to look like a poor kid, what he was.

         A barefoot Kip got out of the Saab to open the passenger door for Mimi, took her in his arms, kissed her, and rubbed against like a dog happy to see its master. He took her two bags and put them in the trunk and introduced her to James Jepson, unlike Kip or Mimi an African American, who stretched across the backseat. James wore jeans and a hoodie, although the hood was not over his head. A smoking joint hung between two fingers of James’ left hand. He looked at Mimi with eyes that relayed James was high, higher than any kite. On the other hand, Kip was as drunk as Mimi had ever seen him.

         “I’ll drive,” Mimi wisely announced.

         For this spur of the moment trip in September, Kip wore a festive red sweater and chinos without a belt. Winter had not yet fully arrived, although it was close, and the air was cool, but Kip didn’t have a coat and apparently didn’t have shoes. He had not packed anything for the trip, not even a toothbrush.

         “Look at you,” Kip said of Mimi’s appearance. “What did you do to yourself?”

         “How come you’re barefoot?” Mimi asked.

         He said he hadn’t been able to find his shoes since they stopped last, but he was sure his loafers were in the car somewhere.

         “You’ve become a black widow,” shoeless Kip slurred.

         A natural brunette, weeks before the attempted robbery Mimi had died her hair the color of coal. She had not stopped at her hair. Her fingernails and toenails were painted black, as were her eyelashes. Even her lipstick was the darkest shade she could find. Around her eyes, dark circles of makeup gave her a sort of raccoon-like appearance. She wasn’t tall like Kip, but of relatively normal height. Her legs looked a little stout, but in reality she did not have fat legs, just broad ones. The two things she hated most about her appearance were her legs and her nose, which she believed was too large and too long. She was actually perfect in appearance, as befits a child who has seen a dentist four times a year her entire life, a doctor for every childhood illness, a dermatologist for every blemish, been a member of various spas, had her hair “done” whenever she liked, and had a personal trainer at times. 

         “You don’t like how I look?” Mimi asked.

         “I don’t know. What do you think of how she looks, James?”

         James was not a youngster who grew up wealthy like Kip and Mimi. James was a distrustful child of poverty and a young man descended from oppressed generations, and he never had gone to an Ivy League college, although he knew where they were and had driven by them all. He had graduated from a public junior college and had transferred on athletic scholarship to the college Kip had attended before dropping out. James was one of six children, five of them unruly boys. He would be the only one in his family to go to college, and when he met Mimi was the only in his family who had graduated from high school. Kip met James at a fraternity party during pledge week, and James had earned his way into Kip’s life by being a good and protective companion, to seemingly ignore the great disparity in their backgrounds and wealth, while allowing Kip to spend plenty of money.

         Because James knew how to find weed didn’t mean that James wasn’t a good man; it was common trait of all the children had who grew up in his neighborhood to know where to score. James might smoke grass, but he didn’t deal and wasn’t into the stronger drugs. Although Mimi would soon enough try to get James to commit a true crime, he had no criminal record, unlike many of the young men he went to high school with and two of his brothers. Mimi would learn that James had worked his way through junior college by bagging and stocking in a supermarket and earned his scholarship by his abilities to snag fly balls and hit home runs, all while making solid grades. His weekly routine usually included five, three-hour gym workouts with weights and a daily one-hour run. He was also an attractive man, almost as tall as Kip, but no so lightweight or colorless. James was dark and substantial, and he had also been a fullback in high school. All of these things and more, Mimi would learn about James in a trip intended to be a few days that turned into a seven-week lark, during which Mimi and James had to withdraw (on line) from college to avoid failing grades.

         “Mimi’s looks fine,” James said of her appearance. “I’m in favor of black.”

         “Thank you, James,” Mimi said.

         “I hear you’re a wild child,” James said.

         “I am,” Mimi agreed. “Did Kip tell you about some of the crazy things we’ve done?” like sinking a boat in Lake Michigan or driving off the car lot with a demonstrator and not bringing it back.

         Kip had indeed told James many of the wild things they did, but with great exaggeration and invention, but not the antics Mimi had in mind.

         Mimi didn’t like the way James smiled when he said, “Yeah, Kipper has told me a lot about you, Mimi.”

         “Give me the keys, Kipper,” she said. “What did you tell James about me?”

         “Oh, you know,” Kip said, only Mimi didn’t know, but she could guess.

         “Asshole,” she said to Kip.

         She took the keys and scooted across the front seats and took her place behind the wheel. Instead of sitting beside her, Kip decided she would be their driver, and he would sit in back with James, and off they drove into mutual calamity. Kip grumbled he didn’t need to sit beside a woman who called him an asshole.     

         She stopped and put the top up before they drove farther off into oblivion. Seven weeks and one morning later, things hadn’t gone as intended.

 

         When Harry Flowers leaves Atlantic City after a ten-day stay, the sky finally clears; he takes the clearing skies as a good omen and doesn’t feel that he is an intended victim of crime. During his stay in the vicinity of the famous boardwalk, the sky was so gray it would be smog if it were summer.  He walked the shoreline on cold windy days and looked at an angry and choppy brown Atlantic Ocean, a sea that appeared somehow injured. At night he couldn’t see the stars.

         He didn’t feel like a man about to be robbed, but he did feel as if he had lost all his luck.

         He lost money for three successive nights, nearly a grand. It didn’t matter what game young Harry played. He couldn’t win because luck had flown away. He tried craps, but couldn’t get “hot.” He sat in on stud and draw poker games without coming close to a single pair. He couldn’t win a hand at blackjack, and blackjack was his game. He even fed the one-arm bandits dollars in despair. Then on the fourth day in Atlantic City, as if in punishment perhaps for his unwillingness to return home to his mother and father for Thanksgiving, he became sick. He coughed out sputum speckled with blood while a fever raged. He probably needed antibiotics, but to get them he would have had to leave his room and find a clinic. He decided to stay in his room until he either improved or died; he expected to die, and at that point in his life didn’t care if he did.

         By the morning he leaves and is about to be robbed, he is over his illness, but down another thousand dollars.                   

         He stops at the convenience store off the boardwalk to fill his tank before going onto the highway. At this point he is unsure where he is going. He could go to Vegas or back to see his sister and never-viewed baby nephew in Florida. He could go gamble again in Cherokee. He too is on a lark, but for a different reason; he is running away.

          On his way into the convenience store to get a cup of coffee, a stranger loitering on the side of the building approaches him, a young, fit black man more or less Harry’s age.

         “I lost everything in the casino,” the stranger says. “Can you help me out, sir?”

         The stranger is bundled against the cold in a hoodie pulled over his head. He is the size of a fullback and outweighs Harry by a good forty pounds. The beggar wears jeans and white t-shirt underneath the hoodie. He says: “I need money to get a bus back home to Newark. Can you help me out, sir?”

         “Don’t call me ‘sir,’” Harry replies. He detests being called “sir” and is only twenty-one. He doesn’t want black people to call him “sir.”

         A woman in a light-green overcoat with a fur (or imitation fur) collar is leaning against the window façade of the 7-11. Harry wonders if she is with the begging man or not.

         Harry thinks this is a hustle, and the man has lost nothing in the casino, he just needs money and is begging, but who knows.

         Mimi’s plan is simple. James begs some money from the mark. The mark takes out his wallet. James grabs the wallet and runs away with all the speed of the sprinter he is. There is little chance the mark can catch James, but Mimi will grab their mark and keep him from doing something so foolish as following. She will say it is too dangerous to give chase, let’s call the cops. If they get a little money, Mimi and James will go back to the casino and try to win more, so she can continue her spree in Atlantic City. She is not ready to go back home and can’t return to Kip, who has tossed her and James out of his room. 

         About her plan, James was willing to beg but never to take the wallet, something he had not relayed to Mimi.

         Harry takes out his wallet anyway. He does this because Harry believes in karma. It is one of the few things that his mother Lois believes that Harry believes in too. If Harry is overly generous to this man in need, faked need or not, luck will return.

         “Take it, man,” Harry says.

         The man, a little younger than Harry, stares at the fifty-dollar bill in Harry’s extended hand.

         “That’s way too much, man,” James says, the possibilities in his life changing. He just might have enough money for bus fare home.

         “I don’t have any smaller bills,” Harry lies, and thinks, karma.

         “Hey, thanks, man,” the stunned beggar James says, and takes the bill. He is relieved. He has never committed what he considers a crime and doesn’t want to start. Bad enough he has had to drop out of college because of Kip and Mimi, and he hopes he can preserve his scholarship. He forces a smile in Mimi’s direction, makes a little wave good-bye to Mimi, turns, bolts, and runs away at full speed in the opposite direction agreed upon with Mimi. He too is running away, this time from the crazy white girl.

         While Harry watches the running black man, wondering why he is running so hard, a hand yanks Harry from behind by his coat collar.

         Harry tenses to defend himself, but when he wheels around with his fists balled and prepared to duck, it is not someone trying to mug him. It is the young woman in the overcoat with the fur collar, Mimi, who sees the young man has his wallet out still.

         “What the hell?” she says.   

         “What the hell,” he says, not because she grabbed him when James ran, but because of her appearance. Her hair is dyed black, her lipstick is black, and her nails are painted black. She wears black pants under the overcoat. Even her boots with the three-inch heels are black, and later when he sees her hose and underclothes they’re black too. The silver ring in her nose sparkles, as do the tiny gold barbells in her earlobes. Then there’s her breath; it smells like she recently had a strong whiskey drink for breakfast or too many whiskeys for last night’s dinner.

         “Are you crazy or something?” she asks in a husky voice altered by too many cigarettes, too many drinks, the wrong kind of drugs, or all three.

         At this point Mimi expects that James should be sprinting down the street with Harry’s wallet while Mimi begs Harry to do the safe thing and not follow, but to call the police instead. Only James has not taken Harry’s wallet or run in the direction he was supposed to run. James has waved farewell to Mimi, and the wallet is still in the young stranger’s hands and soon goes back into a front pocket of his pants.

 

         She’s wearing shades so he can’t see her eyes. Harry hates it when people wear shades so he can’t see their eyes. To give them an edge and to hide their expressions when bluffing, poker players do this to him at the poker tables, where Harry detests it too. He thinks dark glasses make people look like flies instead of humans. He loathes the way the reflective curvature distorts his reflected image. This woman’s glasses are also so big they are covering about a third of her face like a weird mask of some kind; Elton John glasses. It’s hard for Harry to judge the woman’s looks for the mask, but she is talking to him, the first young woman, other than a waitress, to say more to him in Atlantic City than “Go away.” Maybe it’s his Southern accent in a Northern land of strangers that turns people off.   

         “What?” Harry says.

         While looking her over and trying to assess what he is dealing with, he has forgotten what she was asking.

         “I said, are you crazy or something? You’ll get robbed that way. You don’t just take your wallet out and let people see what you’ve got in the big city, rube. That guy could have just grabbed your wallet and took off running, and then what would you have done?”

         Harry thinks her motives may or may not be altruistic, but at least she is speaking to him, a major improvement over the last week when he thought he would die. 

         She takes off her sunglasses revealing a pleasing face and smiles at him. With the glasses off, he can see dark circles about her eyes and the dyed black eyebrows. She has brown pupils surrounded by bloodshot whites, maybe from lack of sleep or crying or both. The nose with the ring in it is perhaps a little large and her eyes a little far apart and not quite level with one another, like a painting he has seen on the cover of Prokofiev Symphony Number Four or Five.

         “You’re hair was brown,” Harry ventures a guess.

         “So?”

         “Why did you dye it?”

         “I wanted a change from what I was,” Mimi says.

         “Did you get it?”

         “I don’t know.”

 

         Broke and with her credit cards shut off, she has been saved. She would rather still be on a spree with James than have to go home, but home she will go accompanied by a good-looking blond man, who has modified his plans by saying he is driving to Vegas. She could have called her father to get a ticket to Chicago, but she doesn’t have to. Maybe her father would have even sent someone to get her. She’d rather stay in Atlantic City, but she can’t, since Kip offered her to James and then wanted to kill her after they both accepted the offer, the acceptance paved on Mimi’s part by too much booze, the offer having the same root cause. Happily there is no need to phone home to Daddy to save her, because this charming lad Harry with all the money in his wallet and with good Southern chivalry is riding her to Chicago in a car of a type she can’t identify while he is allegedly passing by on his way to Vegas, a recent impulse that meets Mimi’s need for transportation. Here she and James intended to rob this nice guy, but instead Harry has rode to her rescue like some strange white knight. The thing that hurts Mimi most is that James ditched her as soon as he had the money to catch a bus home. The next thing that hurts her is thinking about leering Kip watching her with James. What was she thinking? she wonders, knowing that the problem was that she wasn’t thinking. 

         On their way out of Atlantic City, she finds Harry’s bottle of Wild Turkey in a plastic bag between his seat and the car wall separating the trunk from the cab. She lets go of his arm and reaches for the bottle.

         He hears the cork pop from the bottleneck. From the corner of his eye, he sees the long white neck and bobbing Adam’s apple as she tilts the bottle back and drinks whiskey straight. The aroma of bourbon fills the tiny cab of his sporty car as it rattles down the interstate highway in need of roadwork.

         “No so much,” he says. “Take it a little easy. You’ll get sick.”

         “You don’t know me,” she says. “I never get sick.”

         He cracks the window so the air rushing by can suck out the bourbon smell.

         The car’s heater churns blasts of sporadic heat sufficient that she takes off the overcoat with the fur collar. She bundles the coat and puts it against the headrest to use as a pillow.

         She says, “Thanks for giving me the ride. You’re all right, Harry.” She’s momentarily glad that she and James didn’t steal Harry’s wallet.

         “Why do you want me to take you to your parents instead of back to college?” Harry asks.

         “I got a reason,” she says, not wanting to tell him that she has gone on a spree and had to drop out of school. “My mother’s sick.”

         She puts a hand on his knee and rubs his leg in a very friendly way. She smiles at him because she’s feeling better with the drinks. She teasingly runs her hand up his leg.

         The truth is that her mother is dead and has been dead since Mimi was small.

        

        Drinking more, swaying, dipping her head, and shaking her hair, his passenger dances in her seat with her eyes closed as he drives across Pennsylvania. Her short hair whips with each jolt of her body. Her arms are raised almost to the car roof as she snaps her fingers in time with the music on her I-pod.

         Harry can’t hear the music. For Harry, it is as if his passenger, his newfound and intoxicated companion Mimi, is dancing to silence.

         She sways and shakes in her seatbelt to unheard drums, and she hums at times an unknown melody.

         She opens her eyes and smiles at him, but continues dancing.

 

         When he gasses up again, Mimi slowly bends over from the passenger’s seat and lays her head on his seat while he is out of the car pumping gas. She is sound asleep and snoring when he wants to get back into his car.  

         Harry reaches over her collapsed form for the empty liquor bottle between her legs, pulls it gently free, and once he has it puts it into a trash bin. He wonders what he has gotten into and how he can safely get rid of her. He liked to get rid of her now, but he can’t just leave her passed out on a park bench.

         To get back into his seat, he has to go to her door, open it, raise her up off of his seat, and prop her up before he can close the door. He returns her coat under her head in place of a pillow. This does not wake her, although it momentarily stills her snoring.

         “You’re a swell guy, Harry,” Mimi says when she wakes in Ohio. “Thanks for giving me this lift.”

         “It’s a long lift,” Harry says.

         “Harry, when we get to Chicago, I’ll get my father to do something nice for you. He’ll pay for the gas. He’ll pay your expenses. He’ll probably give you money for bringing me home. You’re a bounty hunter, Harry. How do you like that? Do you like pro football, Harry? Would you like to go see the Bears play? My Dad can get you the best seats in town. We got money.”  

         Then she says:   

         I love my father, but not as much as I loved my mother. I ask my mother every time I visit her grave what she regrets in her life. Of course she never answers. But I truly think the only thing she regrets was not being more careful when crossing the street.  

         The nails on the hand she puts on Harry’s knee are sharp, long, and perhaps acrylic.

         “Are you in mourning for your mother?” Harry asks. “Is that why you’ve made everything about you black? Your Mom is not sick? She’s dead?”        

         “It was a long time ago. You don’t get any deader.” 

         “So why are you going home now instead of back to school?”

         “My father’s sick,” she lies.

        

         After 8 p.m. in a Holiday Inn off the Interstate in Ohio, a showered Mimi lays on top of Harry while he kisses her breasts. Her bosoms have been dangled over his face for that express purpose.

         She announces, “I’m going to blow you like you’ve never been blown before,” and descends to do just that. It’s not a hard thing for her to do, because Harry has never before been blown. 

         Afterwards Mimi mounts him and screams out things like, “Oh, my God!” and “Oh baby, oh baby!” and “Again! Again!” and “Harder, Harry, harder!” She sounds like the female lead in a cheap pornographic movie. In orgasm she is loud, perhaps because she is drunk from half of a second bottle of bourbon. Harry is afraid her orgasmic cries, whether real or not, will awake everyone on his floor, and maybe the floor above him. At this point, instead of being excited by the intercourse or oral sex, he is embarrassed.

 

         Near 10 p.m. and exhausted, or at least he is exhausted, they fall sleep entwined, but at 3 a.m. in a room of the Holiday Inn along the interstate in Ohio, he senses Mimi slipping away and rising from their bed with the faintest bed creak.

         In the dark room with only a peek of light coming under the door, he hears the light treading of her feet muffled by the carpet. The bathroom door groans open and the amount of light increases in the room. He can hear Mimi peeing and a few moments later the toilet flushing. He expects her to come back to bed, but she does not.

        He can tell by the rustling of her clothes that she is dressing very quickly. He assumes she is going to leave him. About her departure, he is ambivalent. He likes companionship; on the other hand, Mimi is clearly a lush and maybe mentally ill. Although he worries about her safety, he decides he has to get rid of her, to let her go. Also sleeping in the same bed with Mimi is like sleeping besides an open liquor bottle; he rolled away from her during the night to avoid the gushing reek of her breath.

         He hears her fumbling through his pants and becomes more alert.

         The third lover in his life is looking for his wallet and is about to rob him. Instead of being mugged by poor migrant workers in a South Florida motel with a door that won’t lock, or by the large man begging black man in Atlantic City, he is being robbed by the white woman painted black he mistakenly had sex with.

         Perhaps Mimi’s never robbed a man before, or maybe she’s never robbed a man while he sleeps and is nervous, because his belt buckle loudly strikes the corner of the bedpost while she searches in frustration for his wallet in one of his back pockets. Harry always keeps his wallet in the left front pocket. Loose coins in his right front pocket strike each other as she searches, and then she pulls the wallet out.

         There is also the loud jingling of his keys. Not only does she intend to rob him, she is going to steal his car too.

         Things are tossed rapidly into her large handbag, including his wallet and his keys. She slowly zips her purse in an attempt to dampen the sound. There is a rustling of her clothes. She treads quietly out the room’s sole door gently closing it behind her. When the door opens, the room is illuminated by a blast of hallway light, stirring Harry to action.

         He jumps from bed and puts on his pants and shirt and slips his shoes over his bare feet. Despite the cold, he doesn’t take time to find his jacket or his socks. He sticks the motel room swipe key into his pocket so he can’t lock himself out of the room.

         He sprints down the carpeted hallway by the front desk and out the sliding glass main motel doors and into the parking lot.

         A light snow is falling, but there is no wind. The air feels refreshing, cold, and Harry would enjoy an invigorating jog in such weather, except by being with a woman he can’t trust he can’t jog and leave her alone.

         He comes besides his car and looks down through the driver’s window at Mimi trying over and over to start the engine. He waits for her to become aware of his presence, but she doesn’t see him because of the frustration with the car. She repeatedly cranks the engine hard, but the engine won’t turn over for her. She bangs a small fist on his steering wheel. Next she bangs her head on the steering wheel and curses his car.

         Harry smells gas (she’s flooded his engine by smashing down the gas pedal again and again) and hears her continuing cursing of his beloved auto, a blessed gift from his father. If an effort to overcome the flooding, she holds the gas pedal to the floor while unsuccessfully and ceaselessly cranking the ignition. He decides to intervene before she runs down his battery.

         He opens the door, says, “Stop it,” and she yells, “Oh, fuck!”

         “You’re going to run my battery down,” he says.

         “Jesus, you scared me, Harry.”

         “I’m glad. Can I have my wallet and my keys back?”

         “I was just going out to get something to eat.” She is breathless when she speaks. “I was going to come right back with something hot for us to eat. I didn’t have any money so I borrowed yours.”

         “Yeah, right,” he says, and holds out his hands.

         “Honest, my Dad will pay you back for everything. I wasn’t going to leave you here.”

         “Yes, you were.”

         “OK, I was, but I was going to get your address from your driver’s license and have Dad send you the money. My father is a very wealthy man.”

         “With a thief for a daughter,” Harry says.

         The keys are hard for her to extract from the ignition because she doesn’t know the car.

         “Put the car in neutral and push on the clutch,” he says.

         She puts the shift in neutral, pushes on the clutch, easily removes the keys, and drops the keys into his waiting left hand. There are three keys on the chain: the ignition key, the car trunk, and one for his parents’ home.

         “Put it in first gear and put the emergency brake on,” Harry instructs, and she does so. “My wallet,” he says.

         She reaches into her purse and removes his wallet and puts it in his right hand.

         “It’s all there,” she says. “I didn’t take anything. Count it.”

         “You were going to take everything,” Harry says.

         There is no point in Harry counting it now because he had not counted it before and wouldn’t know if she took money or not.

         She says: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

         “Get your baggage out of my car too,” he tells her.

         Obediently Mimi hops out of the car, goes to the passenger door, opens it, and removes her bags.

         “I suppose you were taking your luggage with you too while getting us something to eat and while not stealing my car,” Harry says.

         “I told you I was going to have my Dad send money to you. How come I couldn’t start the car? What the hell kind of car is this? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

         “Do you know what a choke is?”

         “No.”

         “Good bye,” he says, and turns his back to her and walks away toward the arched motel entrance. He intends to leave her in the parking lot.

         “Hey!” she yells. “You can’t leave me out here in the cold.”

         “Watch me,” he says.

         Carrying one bag and dragging the other, she runs to keep up with him.

         “Come on, Harry. I’m sorry. I got nowhere to go. You can’t leave me out here.”

         “And why would that be?” he says over his shoulder.

         “Because it’s cold. And look, I’ll make it up to you.”

         “Go sit over there in the lobby,” he says when they reenter the motel. “In fact, phone home and ask your rich daddy for a bus ticket. Then you won’t have to rob me and steal my car.”

         “Harry, help me,” she says. “Don’t leave me here. I can make you feel real good.”

She follows him pleading, “I’m sorry, OK. I made a mistake. I’m a little desperate. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, but I never tried to steal money or a car before. I guess I’m hitting bottom. I think I need to go into rehab again.”

         “Again? How many times have you been in rehab?”

         The answer is once.

         Following behind him and not quite catching up, Mimi shuffles down the motel hallway to their room and, before it closes, through the door he tosses open. She lets go of her bags; they tumble over on the floor. She takes the bottle of Wild Turkey he bought for her the night before off the nightstand, pours three inches into a plastic tumbler, and swallows it.

         “Stop drinking, Mimi,” Harry says. “You’re killing yourself. I’ve never seen anyone drink like you.”

         “Like you care.”

         They sit side by side on the bed.

         “You were going back to Atlantic City with my car, weren’t you?”

         She doesn’t answer the question, but the look on her face tells Harry he’s right.

         “That’s why you took my wallet and tried to steal my car. You were going back there. To go home, you didn’t need my car or money. All you had to do was ride along today, and you’d be home tonight. What’s back in Atlantic City that’s so important?”

         “Kip.”

         “Kip?”

         “A boy’s nickname.”  

         Harry’s says he’s never heard of a boy being named Kip. He’s never heard of girl named Kip either.

         “He’s a bit of dandy, OK? He’s a hometown boy. His last name is Kipling, like the English writer. You know, Gunga Din and all that shit. Seymour Kipling is his name. I thought maybe if I went back to Atlantic City, I could make it right with Kip. We grew up together. We should be getting married, not breaking up. I hope he forgives me for what I did.”

         “What did you do?”    

         “It doesn’t matter.”

         “Did you go to bed with me planning on robbing me when I was asleep?”

         “No, I went to bed with you because you’re cute. I just woke up in a kind of panic, and I thought I had to get back to Kip. It’s crazy, because I’m not even sure he’s still in Atlantic City.”

         “You are only the third woman I made love to, and you were going to steal my car and my money.”           

         “Shit happens,” Mimi says.

        

         He comes through Gary with Mimi as a passenger on a truck-clogged and slow-moving Interstate 65. In Chicago he gets off at an exit of Mimi’s choosing. On a clear but cold Saturday morning, he passes through the south side of Chicago where an overturned and bullet-riddled SUV sits at an intersection ignored like some gray dead turtle on its back, only it’s back is a roof.

         “I wouldn’t see this back home,” Harry observes.

         “Where’s home?”

         “Split Oak, Alabama.”

         “Never heard of it. I want another drink before I go home, Harry,” Mimi says, and the bottle from last night is now empty. After she goes home, they’ll be no more drinks. She’ll have to go into rehab again.

         “I don’t believe you,” Harry says.

         He also can’t believe that she doesn’t look drunk in the slightest. Harry would have passed out with so much whiskey inside him. He searches for and finds the word tolerance. He wonders how someone so young could have built up such a tolerance. All he wants at this point is to get her somewhere safe so he won’t be responsible for her and blamed for her condition.

         Turn here, travel about two miles, she tells him. She leads him to a rundown bar he thinks is a dive, and says, “Just one drink.” She’ll pay, she says, although she has no money.

         He wants to take her home, to get rid of her, but he doesn’t know where her home is, so he ends up taking her into The Starting Gate, where she wanted to go and one of the sleaziest bars Harry’s ever been in, although at this point he hasn’t been in a lot of bars. Since she has no money, he orders two draft beers and not the expensive drink she wants, a rusty nail.

         After a sip of her beer, she says, “I’ve lost my song.”

         “How’s that?” Harry says.

         “I lost my song.”

         He decides that she’s crazy for sure.

          “I got to go pee,” she says, rises and leaves, goes to the bathroom, which is in the hallway and out of Harry’s sight.

         The only other patron in the bar is a man so small he could be jockey. The jockey says, “Trouble?”

         Harry nods his head.

         “Cal, like in Calvin,” the small man says.

         “Harry Flowers.”

         “From the South?”

         “Alabama.”

         “I’m from Nebraska. This town is nothing like home.”

         “Say that again,” says Harry.

         When Mimi doesn’t come back after a few minutes, Harry finishes Mimi’s beer and has a third beer while time passes. Two new men arrive and are shooting pool in the back room. One of the pool players is a tall man wearing a fedora. A jukebox plays very old country-and-western music.

         The little man Harry talks to says he’s indeed a jockey and will ride in spring at Arlington.

         A college basketball game is being telecast on a wall-mounted television.

         Harry wonders if Mimi’s father really is wealthy and will fix him up with tickets for a Bears game and pay his expenses for bringing Mimi home.

         “Can I go into the women’s bathroom to see if my date is OK?” Harry asks the rotund bartender named Gordon. Harry expects that Mimi is ill and probably heaving. He is anxious to get her to her father.

         “Sure, but pay me first and knock before you enter,” Gordon says.

         Harry counts out bills and leaves the change on the bar. He knocks on the door to the women’s restroom, opens the creaking swinging door, and expects to find Mimi dead or passed out on the floor. Maybe the booze will have killed her or she’ll have slit her wrists.

         He says, “Mimi,” and gets no response.

         She is nowhere in sight and has left. On the mirror, she’s written in black lipstick: “Thanks for being a good sport, Harry.”

         The good sport goes outside the bar to look for her and checks his car and finds her baggage gone.

         “Good riddance,” the good sport says to no one, not sure he actually means it. He would like to have gone to a Bears home game. He would like to have helped Mimi. Maybe he has or maybe he hasn’t.

         “She’s gone,” Harry says to the jockey and resuming a bar at the seat.

         “Looks like good riddance to me,” says the bartender.

         “You don’t meet women like her back home,” Harry says.

         “Where you from again?” the jockey asks, and Harry tells him Split Oak, Alabama.

         “How did you get here, Bama?”

         Harry wonders how did he get here. He says he thinks it all started with Hurricane Katrina.

         “Were you in New Orleans?”

         “No,” Harry says. “I rode it out in Biloxi.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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