Friday, January 4, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Five

I first met Rae when I'd been living on the road, entirely away from the academic life for about eight months, my spendable savings all but exhausted, the proceeds from my last job dwindling toward the thousand-dollar level, the place where I more or less drew the line. Even back then, working alone and not having the benefit of Rae's extraordinary methodology, I had good instincts about not taking jobs out of desperation. Cutting back on expenses to the point of moving into furnished room off East Garfield in Davenport, Iowa, I boiled water from my portable hotplate for instant oatmeal breakfasts and Top Rammen noodle dinners. Lunch was my main meal of the day, eaten at leisure in some convenient fast-food restaurant discovered in the course of my research.

I was drawn to a small check-cashing service that also sold money orders. Located in a run-down maze of older apartments, thrift shops, and liquor stores just off the Mississippi on Front Street, the object of my interest was new enough in the neighborhood to be still relying on crude signs in the window and one sidewalk display, a small sandwich sign that may have been a relic of an earlier location. Lingering in a small short-order shack over one of the best bowls of chili I'd ever eaten, I continued to watch the check-cashing service. Two cups of coffee and an enormous slab of cherry pie later, my plans were completed. After a brief stop at an Army-Navy store for some essentials, I cleared my things out of the rooming house, changed clothes in the back of an old Subaru published some weeks earlier in Dubuque, then went to work.

By ten that night, I was in Bernie's, a San-Francisco-style bar and grill in Cedar Rapids, flushed with the success of being about twenty-five hundred dollars richer. Treating myself to the giant t-bone steak speial, I sat at the bar, drank local beer, paid middling attention to a Bucks-Bulls game on TV while going through the mail I'd had forwarded to the Cedar Rapids MailBoxes USA franchise: a few literary magazines, an attempted resolution of a problem I'd had with a Midas Muffler shop in Mesa, Arizona, a few notices of stories being rejected, one letter of acceptance from The Pikestaff Forum, and one small envelope that had neary escaped my notice.

In celebration of the acceptance from Pikestaff, I switched from beer to cognac. Bernie's only carried Hennessey, not my favorite, but the options of peppermint schnapps, Hiram Walker's peach brandy, or B & B from a bottle with a white, sugary crust inside the neck left me no choice. The small envelope was from the North American Review, and need I tell you how it added to my already expansive regard for life? Because I move about with such frequency, I generally don't ask for my rejected manuscripts to be returned, relying instead on a number ten envelope for whatever reply was thought appropriate. Small envelope such as the one I held generally meant a note from an editor with a definite acceptance (although on occasion I've been fooled by ones that were only reminders of an about-to-expire subscription).

Robley Wilson had given me a few "close-but-no-cigar" responses on earlier submissions and once in Chicago, where he was reading from his own work, I'd actually met and talked to him. Slitting the envelope with my steak knife, I read his crabbed, scholarly penmanship. "Not quite there, Camden, but getting damned close. have a feeling we'll be doing business soon." RW

I motioned the bartender for another Hennessay at just about the time the commotion began toward the front entrance. Two men wearing turtlenecks much like the one I'd worn earlier in the day had come in and appeared to be shouting something. In response, a number of persons rose from their stools, leaning against the bar, arms extended as though involved in some kind of push-up contest. My first response was amusement at the thought that his was some local tradition, perhaps even one native to Bernie's Bar & Grill. But then the reality of what was happening came to me and my response was anything but amusement. Much of my newly-come-by twenty-five hundred dollars was in my pocket.

A voice behind me said, "You heard the man, Sport. Off the stool. Feet back. Both hands on the bar."

Turning, I saw Rae. The knit watch cap she wore was the same darkness as her ebony hair, giving the overall impression of a compact fullness. Indeed, newspaper reports of the incident the next day described her as having an Afro hair-do.

My knowledge of guns then was even more limited than it is now. I can distinguish the 9 mm semiautomatic, the .38 Smith and Wesson, the Glock, the modern Colt .45 and the Luger-type. I knew the gun Rae carried was not a .38. (She later told me it was a 9 mm.) At the time, she showed it to me with an off-handed wave. "Better get with the program, Sport," she said, hitching her head toward her two cohorts. "They neither one mind denting skulls."

A sudden anger rose to combustion point somewhere in my thorax. "You can't rob me."

"Why is that, Sport?" she said.

"Goddamn it," I said. "You just can't."

Even then, angry as I was, her smile and the slight lift of her brows got to me. "Cause," she said sotto voce, "you just robbed it yourself and should be allowed to keep it?" She smiled again, then called down the bar to one of her cohorts. "Hey, Junior? We got a guy down here, I think he's looking for professional courtesy."


R.L. Bourges said...

I'm starting to like Rae.

lettuce said...

oh darn. I keep visiting favourite blogs to catch up and finding myself landing in the middle of a chapter 5, part 2, section subheading .... ongoing.

i should know better than to plan a quick stop here, your blog always demands and fully repays time and a quick scan of chapter 5 leaves me wanting to dig backwards.

i'll be back.
with a cup of tea maybe.

happy 2008 to you Shelly, I hope it will be an excellent year for you.